You Can’t Tell Egypt’s Players Without a Scorecard

Omar Suleiman(Pictured: Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman.)

When Egypt’s Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq offered his apologies Thursday for attacks by pro-Mubarak forces on Wednesday, calling them a “blatant mistake,” it afforded us a glimpse behind the scenes of Egypt’s governance. In other words, perhaps President Mubarak’s fist is made of a metal more malleable than iron. In fact, a closer look reveals that his unquestioned rule is as much an illusion as that of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini (who incidentally is trying to take credit for Egypt’s awakening. Khameini said of the current unrest that “this is what was always referred to as . . . Islamic awareness in connection with Iran’s great Islamic Revolution”).

The Egyptian government and security forces are as fragmented as Iran’s and many departments and divisions march to their own drum. Paul Amar, Associate Professor of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara explains in a post at Jadaliyya that’s essential reading.

Western commentators, whether liberal, left or conservative, tend to see all forces of coercion in non-democratic states as the . . . the will of an authoritarian leader. But [in Egypt] each police, military and security institution has its own history, culture, class-allegiances, and, often its own autonomous sources of revenue and support as well.

Police forces, for example

. . . are run by the Interior Ministry which was very close to Mubarak and . . . had become politically co-dependent on him. [But police stations themselves] gained relative autonomy during the past decades [in] the form of . . . drug running; or some ran protection rackets that squeezed local small businesses. . . . In the 1980s, the police faced the growth of “gangs,” referred to in Egyptian Arabic as baltagiya [which] asserted self-rule over Cairo’s many informal settlements and slums. Foreigners and the Egyptian bourgeoisie assumed the baltagiya to be Islamists but they were mostly utterly unideological. In the early 1990s. . . . the Interior Ministry and the Central Security Services started outsourcing coercion to these baltagiya. . . . During this period the Interior Ministry also turned the State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al-dawla) into a monstrous threat, detaining and torturing masses of domestic political dissidents.

Autonomous from the Interior Ministry we have the Central Security Services . . . . the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as “the police.” Central Security was supposed to act as the private army of Mubarak. [But they] are low paid and non-ideological. . . . Perhaps if it weren’t for the sinister assistance of the brutal baltagiya, they would not be a very intimidating force.

Just because it’s a scorecard doesn’t mean it’s easy to follow. More:

The Armed Forces . . . see themselves as a distinct kind of state altogether. . . . But the military has been marginalized since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords. . . . Instead, the generals have been given huge aid payoffs by the US . . . . granted concessions to run shopping malls in Egypt, develop gated cities. [They see] themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on. . . . However the military is also split by some internal contradictions.

You get the idea — or not. For more, visit Jadaliyya. As with Iran, you’re left asking, in the immortal words of sixties political satirist Gerald Gardner: “Who in charge here?”