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The Egyptian Revolution Right Now: A Situation Report

Here’s a snapshot of Egypt as of Sunday morning folded together with some analysis.

ON THE STREETS: The beginnings of anarchy. The police have thrown in the towel, leaving the maintenance of law and order to the army — but the soldiers inside the tanks, who have chosen for the most part to stand by inactive while crowds pour into the streets in defiance of the dawn-to-dusk curfew, are also doing little to keep the protesters safe. (You are probably reading reports that the army has taken the protesters’ side en masse; beware the temptation to swallow this whole.) Groups of people, primarily looters (as opposed to peaceful demonstrators), were taken off the streets last night, but the army is not enforcing a strict crackdown on either protesters or violent opportunists by any means. (More on this below.)

The product of the security vacuum is chaos. The death toll has tipped 100 and 2,000 are reported injured so far. Mubarak’s party headquarters building was burned to the ground and other government buildings set alight. As in Tunisia, prisons have been torched, and many convicts have escaped and are now roaming the streets. Egyptian television is reporting that at least sixty rapes have occurred since the unrest began five days ago. Citizens are arming themselves with sticks, clubs, bats, broom handles, kitchen knives, razors and guns to protect their homes from marauders; neighbors are banding together to defend individual streets. Looting is rampant: opportunists are pillaging everything they can get their hands on, and many otherwise law-abiding citizens are raiding supermarkets to get supplies into the house before there’s nothing left on the shelves. Store owners have been seen frantically painting their windows white to conceal the goods within. There are no longer any guards minding the banks, and ATM machines are being smashed and looted. Rioters broke into the Cairo Museum, smashing statues and pulling the heads off mummies. (Again citizens were seen taking matters into their own hands: Al-Arabiya reports that “young Egyptians – some armed with truncheons grabbed off the police – created a human chain at the museum’s front gate to prevent looters from making off with any of its priceless artifacts.”) Wealthy Egyptians are scrambling to fly out of the country on private jets and foreign airlines are suspending flights. Al-Jazeera, which had been broadcasting the protests around the country, has been taken off the air.

MUBARAK’S STATUS: Mubarak is refusing to resign, but there is word (as yet unconfirmed) that he’s fled Cairo for his home in Sharm-al-Sheik. He has sent his family (his two sons and his wife) to London and has appointed his intelligence czar, Omar Suleiman, as VP. This amounts to a concession by Mubarak that his son Gamal — who has been groomed as his successor — will never take power. (Mubarak was Sadat’s VP and ascended to power when Sadat was assassinated; the VP spot is the presidency’s on-deck circle.)

Many protesters will likely view Suleiman as a spider’s compromise, however, since he has been Mubarak’s intelligence chief since 1993 and is essentially his right-hand man. The Americans are no doubt torn on this one: he’s described as “deeply distrusting Iran, favoring close relations with Washington, supporting the cold peace with Israel, and against easing up on the Muslim Brotherhood” and is thus a nearly ideal candidate, but a candidate is exactly what he isn’t. He hasn’t been chosen by the people; he is being appointed (to all intents and purposes) by the ruling despot. Whom to back — Suleiman or ElBaradei? ElBaradei hopes to establish himself as the people’s choice, but Suleiman not only slots better into American foreign policy goals but will almost certainly have the army on his side.

As far as Egyptian popular opinion goes: as always, beware the reckless generalization. It is not a given that all Egyptians will be outraged by Suleiman’s appointment — either by the subversion of democracy it represents or by the man himself. Some will welcome the return to law and order a strongman can provide, and that proportion will increase the longer the current anarchy continues.

WITHIN THE MILITARY: Egypt has the draft. Unlike its policemen, its soldiers are not in uniform voluntarily. From Mubarak’s perspective, the men inside the tanks could have gone either way, and they are indeed showing themselves to be undecided at best: they are neither cracking down on the protesters nor actively defending them. Many striking images are circulating of soldiers emerging from their tanks to be held aloft on the shoulders of protesters, but less mention is being made of the protesters urging the soldiers to open fire on the riot police — a step they refused to take. The army has not formally taken any side and is unlikely to do so until it becomes clearer whether or not Suleiman — an ex-general who is perceived as the army’s candidate — will take power.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: These people are much too smart to get out in front of this until the movement has received strong Western approval. The question, however, is not if they will make their move, but when. The Brotherhood has a real shot in Egypt and they will try to make the most of it. To build support abroad, they will employ what has become their modus operandi: they will try to co-opt Western opinion through the use of strategic buzzwords. (Expect much conspicuous talk about democracy and moderation.) This will not be evidence of their change of heart; it will be a means to their end, which remains a theocracy that is in every way the diametric opposite of a liberal democracy.

The Brotherhood threat will diminish materially if Suleiman succeeds in taking Mubarak’s chair soon. He’s been keeping a tight lid on Egypt’s Islamists for years and will undoubtedly consider it a top priority to reassert his authority over them.

ISRAEL: Bibi has finally spoken, and what he said reflects Israel’s extreme reluctance to wade into this situation. “The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these relations will continue to exist,” he said. “We are following with vigilance the events in Egypt and in our region … we must show responsibility and restraint and maximum consideration.” Internally, this mess is seen by some as further evidence that the central problem in the region isn’t us. I would imagine that that point is quietly being made by Israelis in diplomatic circles.

Bibi will likely breathe a sigh of relief if Suleiman is able to take power smoothly and hold on. In addition to keeping Egypt’s Islamists under control, he has long been Egypt’s top envoy to Israel, Fatah and Hamas, according to Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He is pro-Fatah (i.e., pro-PA) and deeply suspicious of Hamas’s Islamism, which is obviously in keeping with Israeli policy. ElBaradei is a big question mark, although he is generally perceived as both wobbly (at best) on Iran and weak. Not an appealing combination.

Israel is worried about the impact of regime change in Egypt on its struggle to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, but that ties into a greater concern with much deeper implications. The peace treaty with Egypt meant the IDF could focus on the northern front, but if the Brotherhood takes over, that will have to change. The Brotherhood has already said that one of its first acts, if given the opportunity, would be to rip up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel is thus reported to be considering a reallocation and reconfiguration of its defense resources.

IRAN: Publicly, they’re expressing warm satisfaction, but they don’t know which way this is going any more than the rest of us do. Their hard-liners are busy taking credit: “‘Today, as a result of the gifts of the Islamic revolution in Iran, freedom-loving Islamic peoples such as the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and nearby Arab countries are standing up to their oppressive governments,’ said a leading hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.” Iran stands to gain a great deal from the turmoil: their client Hezbollah has just taken control of the government of Lebanon, and if Egypt goes down too, Iran doesn’t need to wait for Jordan to collapse to take on Israel (and Jordan is teetering anyway). An Egyptian descent into Islamism won’t necessarily make an Iranian attack on Israel (by proxies or direct) imminent, but it would make it quite a bit more likely. Remember that Iran already has an arm to Israel’s west: Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

HAMAS: Watching and waiting, like the rest of us. They will be in a much stronger short-term position if Islamists take over Egypt, although they may ultimately be pushed out: Hamas has been struggling for some time with extremists who believe the organization is not sufficiently Islamist. Still, Hamas is bankrolled by Iran, so it’s not going anywhere overnight. If Egypt goes Islamist, it will ultimately be Iran’s strategic decision to make whether or not to stick with Hamas or put their money on a more hard-line horse.