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Unrest in Egypt

4:00 PM, Feb 2, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Just last night I had encouraged an Egyptian friend, Raouf, living in the United States, who wanted to go back home to witness his country’s historic events. “I need to see this,” he told me excitedly. Now with fighting in the streets today I’m not so sure.

Unrest in Egypt

It has been an emotionally taxing week for him and countless other Egyptians both abroad and at home, caught between wanting to see Mubarak leave and fearful for the country’s security. None of his friends, Raouf told me, were out on the streets, even as they all wanted Mubarak gone. Over the weekend when Raouf found out there was rioting in his parents’ neighborhood of Mohandiseen he wanted to go home to help protect them. Finally they made their way to their in-laws’ place where there were plenty of guns on hand for personal security.

The “thousands of young men standing all night in front of their houses and stores to protect them from looting,” writes Amr Bargisi in today’s Wall Street Journal, were “another force in the streets of Cairo besides the demonstrators.” Bargisi had to dictate his piece to Journal editors from Cairo where the Internet is still down. He is a little more circumspect than many of his countrymen, and many Western observers, and recognizes that not all the revolutionary energies at work on the streets of Egypt’s cities are positive forces. “It is a grave mistake,” he warns, “to assume that the rage of the masses will be placated by the ousting of the tyrant.”

It seems that much of the looting was committed by criminals who escaped their prison cells—though it is becoming more likely that they were intentionally released in order to create chaos, just as Saddam Hussein did with the 2003 U.S. invasion. Egypt’s former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly is either a likely suspect or a fall guy, and now Al Arabiya is reporting unconfirmed leaks from Cairo media sources that Adly has been arrested.

It’s not clear who dispatched the so-called regime loyalists to clash with the protestors today—whether it was Mubarak himself or his newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman—but the intent is clear: with full-blown street brawls, now the army has an excuse to clear the streets and stabilize the situation.

The really cynical reading of what’s happened over the last week is that when Ben Ali’s downfall in Tunisia brought out demonstrators in the streets of Egypt, the Egyptian military recognized an opportunity. Let’s put all the excitement about social networks aside for a moment, because no amount of Facebooking or Tweeting is going to send people to the streets if the Egyptian army thinks otherwise. The army was mad at Mubarak for trying to turn what is a military regime into a family dynasty, an odd echo of Egyptian history. In “Egypt after Mubarak,” an article from the latest issue Middle East Quarterly, I noted that, “The Mamluk sultans (1260-1517) tried to get their non-slave sons to succeed them and sometimes managed it, but they were not from the military slave caste and eventually petered out, to be replaced by a proper Mamluk.” “The bulk of Gamal's task,” I wrote, is “to ensure that history does not repeat itself.” And yet it did.

The streets got rid of Gamal, with the army’s acquiescence, and perhaps its outright encouragement, and the army secured the succession of Suleiman. Once the deals had been cut between Egypt’s elites, the next step was to get the masses off the streets, which is why the pro-Mubarak forces, presumably, those today fighting with the demonstrators, is some combination of security officers and street toughs for hire (the baltageya), alongside genuine Mubarak supporters. Indeed, for all the many, and usually unsourced, claims that the Muslim Brotherhood would win in free and fair elections, the fact is that Mubarak would do much better than many Western observers assume—though undoubtedly not by winning general elections with 86 percent of the vote.  For all those who want to see Mubarak gone immediately, there are many, notes Raouf, who are satisfied he's not running next time out and don't want to see him humiliated.

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