There has been a lot said of Egypt’s “March of Millions”. The uprising marks the emergence of a new political society in Egypt, bringing together a totally different coalition of forces. Many think the main reason for the revolts is the rising of food prices, and although this surely added to it, there were a lot of other forces behind Mubarak’s fall from power.
Knowledge about how Egypt’s political, military and police structure works is key to understanding what’s happening in the country, and most Western commentators tend to see all forces of coercion in a non-democratic country as the hammers of dictatorship, but further insight into them shows that each institution has it’s history, and each one acts acoording to it and it’s current situation.
The police forces are run by the Interior Ministry, they were close to Mubarak and co-dependent of him, but with time they gained a kind of autonomy. In the 1980′s, a growing number of gangs invaded the streets of Egypt, asserting self-rule over some specific settlements and slums, These bands were believed to be Islamists, but were mostly unideological. When the Interior Ministry saw they couldn’t beat them, they decided to work with them, training them in using sexualized brutality against protesters and detainees. It was in this period (early 1990′s) when the Interior Ministry turned the State Security Investigations into a threat, using them to detain and torture domestic political dissidents.
The Central Security Services are what the media are calling “the police”: black uniformed, with black helmets, they became the image of the revolution when cameras captured the dissidents kissing these “policeman” and disarming them while they remained impassive. Although the Central Security Services are supposed to act as a private army for Mubarak, they have often risen against him demanding better wages and working conditions.
The Armed Forces of the Arab Republic are a different institution altogether. While Egypt is supposedly still a “military dictatorship”, these forces have been marginalized because they haven’t been allowed to fight anyone since 1977. Thus, they have been given huge payoffs and aid by the US, which have turned them into an organized group of national businessmen. But in recent years, a sense of unease has overcome them, and they have felt an increasing sense of national duty, because it was not standing for its people as it should. They want to restore their honor, and furthermore see themselves as the enemies of the “crony capitalists”, Gamal (Mubarak’s son) and his “team”, who have been selling Egypt’s assets to China, the US, and Persian Gulf Capital. Inside the Armed Forces of the Arab Republic the are two elite sub-groups who have remained loyal to Mubarak. This explains why, during the initial revolts at the end of January, some of the military went against the police and the Central Security; others supported the protesters (like the General Chief of the Armed Forces, Muhammad Tantawi); the chief of Air Force was named Mubarak’s new Prime Minister and other forces protected the radio/tv building from the protesters. They all had their reasons for doing what they did.
The Intelligence Services, also a branch of the military, were captained by Omar Suleiman, the current Vice President. The Intelligence Services take care of external operations, detentions and interrogations. They are obssesed with stability and have a long relationship with the CIA and the USA military. With the rise of the military and the Intelligence Services, Gamal Mubarak was thrown out and Suleiman became VP.
The “nationalist capital” faction in Egypt joined the protesters on January the 31st in demanding the fall of Mubarak, angry at him for favoring Western, European and Chinese investors of national ones. Parallel with this, huge youth and labor groups, powerful and organized, have begun to arise. Groups of unions from the major agricultural towns formed the Trade Union Federation, interested mainly in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Youth is getting more and more organized, and these social and internet coordinated groups are becoming increasingly important, and can be grouped in 3 trends: One group are organized by and around international organization; another by an active liegal culture and independent judicial institution from Egypt; the last one represent the intersection of internationalist NGOs, judicial-rights groups and the new leftist, feminist, rural and worker social movements.
Egypt’s humanitarian history can’t be forgotten, as well as their role in the United Nations. Muhammad ElBaradei, Mubarak’s opposite and former director of the United Nations International Energy Agency is now the head of the United Democratic Front, which have asked him to serve as interim president and oversee the national process of building the consensus and drafting the constitution. Egypt’s humanitarian past tells us that rising food prices are not the only reason for the revolts.
Mubarak’s new cabinet may be a “reshuffled” cabinet, but it signifies a big change in political direction and it’s poised to work to bring together the interests of the new military, national capital and labor, while reassuring the US.
Paul Amar is associate Professor of Global & International Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara