“Plus a change,” say the cynical French, “plus c’est la mme chose.”
Many thoughtful Egyptians will be recalling this “bon mot” as the watch one ruler, the ousted Husni Mubarak, replaced by a military junta led by Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi.
Egyptians are getting more Mubarakism, sans Mubarak, at least for now. This is not what most Egyptians want or deserve.
The new military junta just proclaimed it would support the hated Israeli-Egyptian peace deal signed by Anwar Sadat, thus assuaging fears in the US and Israel. In an example of typical post-coup talk, the junta says elections will be held sometime in the future.
Many Egyptians are still euphoric over the ouster of Gen. Mubarak, known to one and all as “pharaoh.”
Most of them do not yet seem to have realized that the people who have taken over the regime are the very same generals, policemen and tycoons who ran it under Mubarak.
The dreaded secret police, or “Mukhabarat,” is commanded by Gen. Omar Suleiman, who is widely viewed as America’s and Israel’s man in Cairo. Alongside him are Marshall Tantawi, chief of staff Lieutenant General Enan and Ahmed Shafik, also seen as America’s men on the Nile. The US usually had a backup for its favorite dictators; this writer noted last April that Gen. Omer Suleiman was Mubarak’s US-anointed successor. After Anwar Sadat’s assassination, Gen. Mubarak was quickly engineered into power.
The latter two generals attended the Pentagon’s updated version of the US military’s School of the America’s in Panama that recruited Latin American officers for the CIA. Senior ranks of Egypt’s 465,000-man armed forces and the secret police are believed to receive sizable secret stipends from CIA and the Pentagon.
Egypt’s senior generals are part of the ruling establishment. Many spend more time managing their business affairs than military matters. Such is also the case in many other Arab one-party states.
As in Pakistan, Egypt’s army is up to its helmets in big business: shopping centers, tourism, property, hotels, steel, telecom. Few among Egypt’s top brass want to end their gravy train by changing the status quo. They are ready to fight to the last mall or stock split.
The US has paid Egypt’s military $1.4 billion annually since 1979 not to confront Israel, one of the biggest bribes in history. On top of this, Egypt receives some $600 million more annually in economic aid, subsidized US wheat, and a host of other goodies — all to make nice to Israel and keep Egypt from supporting the Palestinians.
Egypt’s large armed forces were reconfigured after the Camp David accords, turning it under US supervision from a force designed to defend Egypt’s borders and regional interests to one whose primary function was to control the population and protect the US-backed regime. The military’s stocks of munitions and spare parts for its US arms were kept to a bare minimum to ensure Egypt could not go to war with Israel.
As I watch Egypt’s slow-motion revolution, I wonder if somewhere among the armed forces is another young colonel who loves his people even more than he loves real estate. The Muslim Brotherhood, an object of ill-informed hysteria in the US, wants to reallocate arms spending to social needs.
Egypt’s younger officers must be thinking about the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized power in 1952 after Egypt’s disastrous war with Israel in 1947–8. Perhaps there is a young colonel or even major who may try to seize power and emulate Nasser, who is still adored by many Egyptians in spite of his disastrous mistakes. People have forgotten many of them. What they do remember was that when Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, his family had little money, and they recall that Nasser spoke for Egypt, not foreign powers.
So far, the so-called Egyptian Revolution has only been a game of musical chairs. The United States still dominates Egypt’s military, policy, and economy. Washington provides wheat without which Egypt cannot feed itself.
Israel still exercises powerful influence over Egypt thanks to its supporters in the US Congress. An angry word from Jerusalem, and Egypt’s wheat could be cut off. Egyptian and Israeli intelligence are as entwined as was Israel’s Mossad with the Iranian Savak secret police.
The massive pyramid of Egypt’s police state — to use a fine metaphor from the brilliant Albanian writer Ismail Kadere — will not be easily lifted, perhaps without a full scale, violent revolution. To date, the revolt on the Nile has not even produced a Kerensky, never mind a Lenin.
If Egyptians feel cheated by the change of power in Cairo, as many will, and violent demonstrations begin, what will happen if the junta orders a battalion commanded by a colonel to open fire on protesters?
The first young officer who refuses and orders his men to join the demonstrators could become Egypt’s new hero. Nasser’s ghost haunts Cairo.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.