Million-Person Marches and the Army Backs Off

Despite efforts of the regime of Hosni Mubarak to forestall it by canceling trains to Cairo and throwing up checkpoints, masses of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, as well into the downtown of Alexandria, on Tuesday morning. At Twitter, courtesy Google/ phone land line (+16504194196 ), we could read from Sharif Abdel Kouddous of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!:

sharifkouddous Sharif Kouddous
Got searched by at 3 army checkpoints and 5 citizen checkpoints. Frisking an looking at IDs to prevent state security forces in…

and

sharifkouddous Sharif Kouddous: “Wow. It’s 10am and already more people in Tahrir than I have ever seen. And there’s more flooding in #Egypt

Other twitter reports say that people are walking in to the capital from the outskirts. There are an estimated 20 million people in the Greater Cairo area, so it would be hard to isolate it! The tens of thousands said to be thronging in Egypt’s two biggest cities are attempting, by the sheer force of their people power, to impress on Hosni Mubarak that his government simply cannot survive.

The Egyptian army made clear late Monday afternoon Cairo time that it would not repress peaceful demonstrations. A spokesman read out a statement on television: The military said it was fanning out through the streets to prevent looting and acts of sabotage. It said that the military recognized the legitimacy of the demands of the people and of the demonstrators who are asking for vast political and social adjustments. It said it would “never resort to the use of force against this great people.”

Meanwhile, the newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman of military intelligence, offered to open negotiations with the demonstrators.

Some analysts are interpreting these statements as a two-pronged strategy. But I wonder if they do not point to a split in the security forces. Suleiman is from military intelligence, not the regular army. The new prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, is an officer from the relatively elite and pampered air force (like Mubarak himself).

The statement about not using force on the people came from the regular army, which is made up of a combination of staff officers and thousands of conscripts. Army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan (Enan) may have decided to preserve the unity of his branch of the armed forces, the closest to the people, by throwing the other three under the bus.

As a smart Pakistani analyst put it:

‘ The Egyptian theatre now has four key players — Lt Gen Sami Annan, Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Defence Minister, Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq, Minister for Civil Aviation [and now Prime Minister], and Lt Gen Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief. Of the four, Lt Gen Annan commands 468,000 troops, Field Marshal Tantawi oversees 60,000 Republican Guards while Lt Gen Suleiman is rumoured to be ailing. ‘

Thus, Suleiman’s offer to negotiate is probably a way of trying to keep the newly appointed military cabinet in power, perhaps with an eye to new elections, by reaching out to and perhaps bringing in from the cold at least some of the opposition. Lt. Gen. Anan, in contrast, seems not to care very much whether the Mubarak crew stays in power or not, as long as the institution of the army is safeguarded and law and order can be preserved.

In a mass popular uprising of the sort now ongoing in Egypt, unity of the military and security forces, their backing for the ruler, and willingness to be ruthless, are key to a government remaining in power. This combination of factors was present in Iran in summer-fall, 2009. But the news out of Cairo late Monday and into Tuesday suggests deep divisions and diffidence in the military, which bodes ill for Mubarak.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Mohamed Elbaradei warned Mubarak that he had better flee if he values his life. He said that crowds were no longer simply calling for his resignation, but were beginning to call for him to be put on trial.

I watched some official Egyptian television. It is disgusting, with the same tone and snark of Fox Cable News (which is calling the peaceful demonstrators “rioters.”) The anchor actually defended the security police for shooting down dozens of people on Thursday and Friday. “What else could they do?” A call came in from someone ranting that it was all a Muslim Brotherhood plot. Another man insisted that a few people in the street did not represent the whole people. You get a sense of what the salon conversations of Marie Antoinette must have been like in 1789.

33 Responses

  1. Thanks for your views. Watching AlJazeera, it is just truly amazing. The zombie Mubarak regime is doing everything it can to keep the Egyptian people out of central Cairo, out of Tahrir Square. Yet, they keep on flooding in.

    Mubarak’s methods seem to have backfired. He cut the internet, so Egyptians went out into the strets to see what what was going on. He let rumors and thugs loose to loot and threaten. Egyptians joined their neighbors and came out into the streets to protect themselves, empowering themselves yet further.

  2. Al Jazeera just reported that Jordan’s King Abdullah had dismissed the cabinet and appointed a new PM!

  3. Here’s a youtube video from Fox:

    link to youtube.com

    My only point with the video is that the anchor calls the demonstrators, demonstrators, seems to be thoroughly reasonable, and the middle east expert guest seems to be fairly knowledgeable.

    Typically, the “news” part of Fox News is passable. It’s the shows hosted by pundits where Fox News gets its reputation for bias.

  4. I’m no authority on Egypt, but it seems to me that the Mubarak regime tried the expedient so often appealed to by authoritarian governments when faced with a broad popular uprising: try to encourage “anarchy and chaos” to scare the middle class away, then try to move in and reimpose “order” with their at least tacit acquiescence. Under such regimes, where there is a large and omnipresent police force who see the political opposition (real or potential) as their primary enemy, there is often a sort of tacit alliance between police and not only fascists or their equivalents, but also gangsters and certain elements of the criminal classes, with all three of whom the personnel often overlap. I heard a lot about this when I was in Greece this spring: one of the most telling government reactions to the insurrectionary stirrings of January 2010, when there was a spate of school and even factory occupations, and some neighborhoods began holding public assemblies to begin to take over certain functions of government, was to redouble police presence in those neighborhoods where that was happening, often teaming up with right-wing thugs to do things like trash anarchist cafes and whatnot, and effectively withdrawing police presence from those immigrant neighborhoods seen to be full of drug-dealers, pimps, and various sorts of petty criminals, so as give people a sense that the breakdown of state authority would necessarily lead to Hobbesian chaos. In Greece this was clearly a long-term strategy but it seems like in Egypt, they tried an extreme version of something like that in a hurry; and we won’t know until much later, for instance, how many of the people running amok were criminals intentionally released by the cops, gangsters and thugs taking advantage of the absence of cops, or actually _were_ cops.

    The obvious danger (from the point of view of the authorities) with this strategy is: if you intentionally foment chaos, there is the possibility that some elements of the “security forces” that actually do see their role as guaranteeing security might then feel they have little choice but to begin cooperating with the protestors, thus creating a dual power situation. The most telling quote I’ve seen from news reports was from a few days ago:

    In one part of Tahrir Square, soldiers working with civilian protester volunteers were even checking IDs and bags of people arriving at the square, saying they were searching for weapons and making sure plainclothes police did not enter the square.
    “The army is protecting us, they won’t let police infiltrators sneak in!” one volunteer shouted.

    Which indicates that even the army suspected that cops out of uniform were a main source of random violence and general trouble. Anyway, that’s exactly a dual power situation and when that sort of thing starts happening, elites usually panic and are terrified and start frantically trying to figure out a way to prevent this from going any further. In fact, I find it startling that Mubarak is still there even a few days after things like that – it’s more typical for the sitting president to be whisked away the moment there is any sign that the army might be making common cause with protestors (I always remember the example of Sanchez del Losada in Bolivia who in 2003 was forced to step down almost instantly after the first soldier was shot by a superior for refusing to obey an order to fire on demonstrators. When things like that happen, the rest of the ruling class usually decides to cut their losses and at the very least, change the immediate face of power.) Mubarak must either have a very determined faction of powerful supporters who are being enormously stubborn, or, alternately, the US is exerting a great deal of pressure behind the scenes to ensure the obvious doesn’t happen.

  5. So presumably, the Egyptian Government is trying (?successfully?) to restrict the public’s access to information to the “State” outlets only? We know they have already shut off the Internet, closed Al-Jazeera (who somehow seem to keep up a flow of reports nevertheless) and restricted other communications systems. Is this likely to work? One would imagine that the Egyptian public would take the pronouncements of the “official” media with the grain (kilos) of salt they deserve!

  6. I like your coverage of the Egyptian protests. It is good that the army isn’t going to fight peaceful demonstrators. This might be the first step in the fall of the Mubarak government.

  7. Can you tell us if the military aircraft flying over Cairo are American made. A small point, perhaps, but in these times when symbols mean a lot, I think it important to know.
    Thanks.

  8. Just a note to say thanks for the column; your work plus Al Jazeera English means we have a far better understanding of what’s happening in Egypt than most Americans get, especially from network and cable news, all of which are belatedly chasing this story and with the usual biases.

  9. I am amazed at the lack of support from the USA. But then I can see why because the pressure on Obama from Israel is great with all the insinuation he is a failed leader because he has allowed this to happen to Mubarek.

    What seems to be missing from the mind of the USA leaders is that we don’t control everything in the world and there are times when we’re unhappy we can’t throw money or military force at our problems.

    I cannot believe how we have been propagandized to believe Israel is the only democracy and the Arabs don’t want democracy when it is us, the USA, that has been paying the dictators of Egypt and Jordan, and holding hands with the dictators of Saudi Arabia, to keep the people from being free. What a immense tragedy that we have built the peace, what little there was, on the bodies of the oppressed.

    • There was some discussion of this yesterday on Librul Radio (I think possibly Thom Hartmann). The US is in an unfortunate position. Decades of supporting repressive regimes, overthrowing popularly-elected democratic rulers, and intervening militarily in the Middle East (not to mention everywhere else) has made “the US Seal of Approval” a very bad thing.

      You don’t want to get tarred with the approval of Washington. And, in this case, Washington wants to make sure not to do anything which would jeopardize the legitimacy of these democracy movements.

      If that means just shutting up and waiting on the sidelines, that’s what Secretary Clinton and the President have to do.

  10. Is it also possible, Dr. Cole, that at the direction of The White House and State Dept., the Pentagon – which has 30-plus years of close general-to-general ties with various branches of the Egyptian military – sent “back door” messages to their friends in Cairo that the Army better not even think of firing on peaceful demonstrators?

    This notion was posited by several guests last night on The Rachel Maddow Show and it makes some sense. At the same time, the civilian leadership at the Pentagon was making public noises about “reviewing” military aid to Egypt. In effect, the Obama Administration effectively neutralized the Egyptian military which is heavily reliant on the US$2-billion in annual aid from America.

    Also all but uncovered today was news that the Jordanian government resigned after demonstrations in Amman (and possibly other cities). US media hardly paused in its coverage of Cairo and even al Jazeera (English) noted the development only in the crawl that runs along the bottom of the screen.

    • It looks like the new guy in Jordan is just an old conservative, replacing yet another failed whiz-kid neoliberal. Don’t know anything about Jordan’s people (as opposed to its imposed ruling dynasty) so I can’t say if merely backing off of Shock Doctrine capitalism will cause tempers to cool down.

  11. Events in Egypt may have the potential to transform the Middle East, a region that is of vital strategic and economic importance to the United States, but members of the great FOX-watching American public are not paying very close attention.

    According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only about one-in-ten (11%) respondents cited news about protests in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries as the story they followed most closely last week. By contrast, more than three times that number (38%) followed news about the aftermath of the January 8 Arizona shooting rampage most closely in the past week. These figures reflect the results of the Pew Center’s latest News Interest Index survey, conducted Jan. 27-30 among 1,007 adults.

    • I hate to say it, but this may actually be a good thing. Fewer Americans watching is fewer Americans being whipped up into an Arab-bashing frenzy and calling their Congressmen to support the Empire.

      A new survey also says 70% of Americans don’t want us to get involved in this crisis, which probably consists of factions who just hate the 3rd world and don’t want to do their duty as citizens to stay informed of our global entanglements, and wiser heads who realize that we will just screw everything up.

      • not really, The less the Americans are aware of what’s going on the easier they are to be manipulated by the politicians and the “media”

  12. It was the Air Force that buzzed the demonstration in Cairo with fighters the other day.

  13. “the military recognizes the demands of the people.” Or something.

    Most everywhere you go, “the military” may even be aware of its true nature as a parasite tending toward pathogen. They don’t grow food or create wealth, they live on exactions from the people that do.

    Sometimes they (speaking inclusively of the whole state security apparatus) can work the politics and imagery and the fear that comes out of that gun barrel to keep the productive people toiling to feed the cuirassed class, since the citizens know that they and their children have to eat and have that biological imperative of self- and species-preservation.

    Sometimes, rarely, the praetorians actually embody the national myths and ideals, stuff like US officers and enlisted swear to do — that “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same” stuff.

    And maybe decency, and more likely enlightened self-interest, the old don’t-kill-the-Golden-egg-laying-goose thinking, will lead the Egyptian Army officers and “conscripts” to support or at least not suppress something like what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia. (Gee, tell me again why the Pentagram wanted to do away with the draft and go to an All Volunteer Force Structure?)

    Is the Army “throwing the other state-security branches under the bus?” Or just creating a healthy distance, much as the golfer in a thunderstorm is well advised not to stand next to a solitary tree or flag pole?

    • It kind of depends on whether “the military” is indeed a separate, privileged class, or is comprised mostly of conscripts from the general population.

      Something we in the US would be wise to start thinking about.

    • I guess they’re still better than the Indonesian Army, which parlayed its self-appointed role of deliverer of Indonesia’s liberation into three horrible genocides. I’m beginning to think of all the unpunished criminal institutions out there, the Indonesian Army got away with the most.

  14. Cecile Hennion, in Le Monde, who is as knowledgeable as any journalist who has ever covered Egypt, says that the people demonstrating have no leadership or organization. They have nothing to replace Mubarak with.

    In addition, she says that the people demonstrating are growing increasingly distrustful of each other, fearing that the secret police are everywhere among them… which is no doubt accurate. Needless to say, the secret police have no desire to get killed but plenty of desire to take vengence once the demonstrations stop.

    The odds of this petering out and there being horrific reprisals I would say are much greater than 50-50.

    But… has the US backed itself into a corner. Can Obama really go on TV and say that everything that is happening in Egypt is their domestic problem?

  15. Mubarak says he will not run for President again, which suggests he means to hang on till September. Meanwhile, he will undertake the effort of addressing protestors’ issues.

    That will go down well.

  16. Today, Pepe Escobar cites Mr Cole in his detailed piece about the Muslimm Brotherhood that ought to shut the traps of those saying Egypt will become the new Iran, link to atimes.com

    His conclusion is noteworthy:

    “There’s no question – with the MB as part of an Egyptian government, a really sovereign Egyptian government, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt will be renegotiated (the MB favors a referendum). **And so we reach the heart of the matter. After this revolution, US and Israeli interests cannot possibly converge – even as optical illusion.**

    “This is not an anti-American revolution; it’s a revolution against an American-supported regime. A legitimate, sovereign, post-Mubarak government cannot possibly be a Washington puppet – with all the regional implications that entails. And that goes way beyond the MB. This is about the millenarian heart of the Arab world possibly on the verge of a dramatic seismic shift.”

  17. List of MB’s demands, which are so far reasonable but not trustable since Khomeini, one of their protege’, lied through his teeth to get the consensus of all the secular/political groups in 1979.

    link to ikhwanweb.com

  18. First of all, thanks for your insightful and clarifying blog!

    Since you mention Fox Cable News here, may I just ask you what kind of news network they really are? I can view them here in Sweden, but… God, they are like some Chinese or even Burmese news channel. They sometimes are so far away from the truth I wonder if they are serious or a comedy show. Who are they, and what drives them? No offense meant, but I’m intrigued and concerned. Do people in the U.S. actually believe in what they are saying?

    • You understand, don’t you, that they are a property of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (US headquarters at 1211 Ave of the Americas, New York NY 10036).

      Mr. Murdoch is a second generation publishing magnate, his father actually had the brilliant idea of capturing both the id and the ego of the lower classes (of Australia, where he started) by publishing daily shots of women’s breasts combined with semi-rabid conservative political allegiance and slant in both News and editorial presentation. Indeed they made it clear (in action, if not in words) that news presentation was part of editorial presentation. Rupert has successfully transferred the formula to the United Kingdom and now to the United States. Ironically, although the Fox broadcasting and cable-casting television cannot use the direct presentation of women’s breasts that the newspaper properties in Australia and the UK use to this day — though check the babes and their stylings of the young Fox presentations — in their video entertainment presentations, they are even more willing to use any kind of sex, drugs, terror, evil businessman stories, alternative and/or alternative reality presentation that contradicts and undermines the conservative political ideology that is religiously spouted in their “news” presentations.

      It is a form of alternative reality, or subculture creation by sheer force of manipulative corporate ideology and financial resources. The stuff does sell, however it has become much more extreme in the American political spectrum in the last 3 years. It doesn’t look like ending well.

    • yes, sadly they do believe. In the UdSSR the people knew that Pravda was a propaganda organ – in the US Americans do not know that their media are propaganda organs too…

  19. In this situation, it’s very significant when a regime announces something and can’t follow through. Friday, you knew that something big was coming when the regime said tht Mubarak would appear on tv, and then he didn’t for hours and hours. Sure enough, the existing cabinet fell, which was pretty big in itself.

    Yesterday, the Interior Ministry said mobile service would be shut down today. It wasn’t. That’s a sign Mubarak and the whole cabinet have lost their last small power bases. Tonight’s announcement is just whistling in the wind. The last-ditch cabinet will fall this week, probably tomorrow.

    Will Anan attempt to take power? Will we see the rise of the “board of trustees” mentioned by MB and Baradei sources in Reuters, to include Baradei, Anan and the Nobel Chemist Zewail? Some other group? Who will represent the people on the street? Surely there will have to be some young people in a transitional council?

  20. Stupid question. The Pakistani analyst you link describes Murabak as “the President of Jumhuriyah Misr al-Arabiyah”. What does this mean? Misr is the Arabic name for Egypt right?

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