Egypt: Background

Photography by Luca Quagliato

Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, erupted in mass protests in January 2011, as the revolution in Tunisia inflamed decades worth of smoldering grievances against the heavy-handed rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

After 18 days of angry protests and after losing the support of the military and the United States, Mr. Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, ending 30 years of autocratic rule. The military stepped forward and took power. It quickly suspended unpopular provisions of the constitution, even while cracking down on continuing demonstrations.

In March, a set of constitutional amendments that paved the way for elections was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum that drew record numbers of voters. But anger over what many demonstrators saw as the military’s loyalty to the core of Mr. Mubarak’s government and the slow pace of change led to new mass protests and violence in April.

The military’s 18-member ruling council said it would hand over legislative powers after a parliamentary election in the fall, and that executive powers would be transferred after the presidential election, which would follow. But doubts quickly began to grow about the military’s commitment to the ideals of the revolution, with protests flaring into violence in June and again in October, when 24 were killed in a night of chaotic clashes between Muslims, Christian protesters and police.

Early in August, to the surprise of many, an ailing Mr. Mubarak was rolled into a courtroom in a hospital bed to face charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters. The symbolism of the day’s events, watched live on television by tens of millions, served as a national catharsis for Egypt and electrified the Arab world. But testimony by police officials and the country’s military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, failed to produce evidence one way or the other — an outcome that may serve to deepen suspicions in the country that Mr. Mubarak’s former allies in the military are trying to acquit him of more serious charges.

In October, public confidence in the military’s ruling council, already ebbing, plunged after two dozen Coptic Christian demonstrators died in clashes with soldiers guarding a government building. Some protesters were run over by military vehicles and others were shot, and the military responded by blaming the protesters.

Days later, members of the military council said they planned to retain full control of the Egyptian government even after the election of a new Parliament begins in November. The legislature will remain in a subordinate role similar to Mr. Mubarak’s former Parliament, they said, with the military council appointing the prime minister and cabinet.

The military had pledged in formal communiqués last March to hold the presidential election by September. But the generals now say that will come only after the election of a Parliament, the formation of a constitutional assembly and the ratification of a new constitution — a process that could stretch into 2013 or longer.

Meanwhile, in Cairo’s most crowded quarters, Islamic activists who failed to drive the popular uprising — some, in fact, opposed it — are mobilizing to claim its mantle. Under Mr. Mubarak’s long rule, the divergent currents of Islamists were often grouped under the rubric of “the religious.” That is no longer the case.

The Muslim Brotherhood now openly competes with groups that have lately become more assertive: the Salafists, the most puritanical current, along with the once-militant Islamic Group, which renounced violence in the late 1990s.


Egypt's Coptic Christians

Recent Developments

Oct. 9 A demonstration by angry Christians in Cairo touched off a night of violent protests against the military council ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Mubarak. The protest occurred against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, and appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council, at a moment when the military’s delays in turning over power had led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.


Sept. 24 Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawitestified at the trial of his onetime patron and colleague, former President Hosni Mubarak, in a closed hearing that disappointed prosecutors who had hoped he would help determine whether the ousted Egyptian leader conspired to order the killing of unarmed demonstrators in his final days in power in February.

Sept. 12 Acknowledging a credibility crisis after it allowed a mob to invade the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, the military-led transitional government said that it would exploit a reviled “emergency law”allowing extra-judicial detentions as part of a new crackdown on disruptive protests. This marked an abrupt reversal for the military council, which had promised to eliminate the law, which had been considered emblematic of Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.

Background — Before the Revolution

Egypt is a heavyweight in Middle East diplomacy, in part because of its peace treaty with Israel, and as a key ally of the United States. The country, often the fulcrum on which currents in the region turn, also has one of the largest and most sophisticated security forces in the Middle East.

Mr. Mubarak has been in office since the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat on Oct. 16, 1981, whom he served as vice president. Until the recent unrest, he had firmly resisted calls to name a successor. He had also successfully negotiated complicated issues of regional security, solidified a relationship with Washington, maintained cool but correct ties with Israel and sharply suppressed Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism — along with dissent in general.

The government for decades maintained what it calls an Emergency Law, passed first in 1981 to combat terrorism after the assassination of Mr. Sadat. The law allows police to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.

In 2010, the government promised that it would only use the law to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, but terrorism was defined so broadly as to render that promise largely meaningless, according to human rights activists and political prisoners.

From Apathy to Anger

While Mr. Mubarak’s regime had become increasingly unpopular, the public long seemed mired in apathy. For years, the main opposition to his rule appeared to be the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned but still commanded significant support.

In 2010, speculation rose as to whether Mr. Mubarak, who underwent gall bladder surgery that year and appeared increasingly frail, would run in the 2011 elections or seek to install his son Gamal as a successor. Mr. ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, publicly challenged Mr. Mubarak’s autocratic rule, but the Mubarak political machine steamrolled its way to its regular lopsided victory in a parliamentary vote.

The anger fueling the street protests was not new. It had been seething beneath the surface for many years, exploding at times, but never before in such widespread, sustained fury.The grievances are economic, social, historic and deeply personal. Egyptians often speak of their dignity, which many said has been wounded by Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on power, his iron-fisted approach to security and corruption that has been allowed to fester. Even government allies and insiders have been quick to acknowledge that the protesters have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

In the last few years, Egypt has struggled through a seemingly endless series of crises and setbacks.The sinking of a ferry left 1,000 mostly poor Egyptians lost at sea, an uncontrollable fire gutted the historic Parliament building, terrorists attacked Sinai resorts, labor strikes affected nearly every sector of the work force and sectarian-tinged violence erupted.

And in nearly every case, the state addressed the issue as a security matter, deploying the police, detaining suspects, dispersing crowds. That was also true in 2010, even as evidence mounted of growing tension between Egypt’s Muslim majority and a Christian minority that includes about 10 percent of the approximately 80 million Egyptians.

A Police State

Egypt’s police bureaucracy reaches into virtually every aspect of public life here, and changing its ways is no easy task, everyone concedes. Police officers direct traffic and investigate murders, but also monitor elections and issue birth and death certificates and passports. Every day, 60,000 Egyptians visit police stations, according to the Interior Ministry. In a large, impoverished nation, the services the police provide give them wide — and, critics say, unchecked — power.

The Egyptian police have a long and notorious track record of torture and cruelty to average citizens. One case that drew widespread international condemnation involved a cellphone video of the police sodomizing a driver with a broomstick. In June 2010, Alexandria erupted in protests over the fatal beating by police of beating Khaled Said, 28. The authorities said he died choking on a clump of marijuana, until a photograph emerged of his bloodied face. In December 2010, a suspect being questioned in connection with a bombing was beaten to death while in police custody.Abuse is often perpetrated by undercover plainclothes officers like the ones who confronted Mr. Said, and either ordered or allowed by their superiors, the head investigators who sit in every precinct.

The government denies there is any widespread abuse and frequently blames rogue officers for episodes of brutality. Even so, for the past 10 years, officers from the police academy have attended a human rights program organized by the United Nations and the Interior Ministry.

Source: New York Times;