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Is the Army Tightening Its Grip on Egypt?

by Robert Fisk

Two days after millions of Egyptians won their revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the country's army – led by Mubarak's lifelong friend, General Mohamed el-Tantawi – further consolidated its power over Egypt yesterday, dissolving parliament and suspending the constitution. As they did so, the prime minister appointed by Mubarak, ex-General Ahmed Shafiq, told Egyptians that his first priorities were "peace and security" to prevent "chaos and disorder" – the very slogan uttered so often by the despised ex-president. Plus ça change?

Egyptian soldiers surround the remaining protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, yesterday, as the military tried to cajole people to return to normal life. (MANOOCHER DEGHATI/AP) In their desperation to honour the 'military council's' promise of Cairo-back-to-normal, hundreds of Egyptian troops – many unarmed – appeared in Tahrir Square to urge the remaining protesters to leave the encampment they had occupied for 20 days. At first the crowd greeted them as friends, offering them food and water. Military policemen in red berets, again without weapons, emerged to control traffic. But then a young officer began lashing demonstrators with a cane – old habits die hard in young men wearing uniforms – and for a moment there was a miniature replay of the fury visited upon the state security police here on 28 January.

It reflected a growing concern among those who overthrew Mubarak that the fruits of their victory may be gobbled up by an army largely composed of generals who achieved their power and privilege under Mubarak himself. No-one objects to the dissolution of parliament since Mubarak's assembly elections last year – and all other years -- were so transparently fraudulent. But the 'military council' gave no indication of the date for the free and fair elections which Egyptians believed they had been promised.

The suspension of the constitution – a document which the millions of demonstrators anyway regarded as a laissez-passer for presidential dictatorship – left most Egyptians unmoved. And the army, having received the fulsome thanks of Israel for promising to honour the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, announced that it would hold power for only six months; no word, though, on whether they could renew their military rule after that date.

But a clear divergence is emerging between the demands of the young men and women who brought down the Mubarak regime and the concessions – if that is what they are – that the army appears willing to grant them. A small rally at the side of Tahrir Square yesterday held up a series of demands which included the suspension of Mubarak's old emergency law and freedom for political prisoners. The army has promised to drop the emergency legislation "at the right opportunity", but as long as it remains in force, it gives the military as much power to ban all protests and demonstrations as Mubarak possessed; which is one reason why those little battles broke out between the army and the people in the square yesterday.

As for the freeing of political prisoners, the military has remained suspiciously silent. Is this because there are prisoners who know too much about the army's involvement in the previous regime? Or because escaped and newly liberated prisoners are returning to Cairo and Alexandria from desert camps with terrible stories of torture and executions by – so they say – military personnel. An Egyptian army officer known to 'The Independent' insisted yesterday that the desert prisons were run by military intelligence units who worked for the interior ministry – not for the ministry of defence.

As for the top echelons of the state security police who ordered their men – and their faithful 'baltagi' plain-clothes thugs -- to attack peaceful demonstrators during the first week of the revolution, they appear to have taken the usual flight to freedom in the Arab Gulf. According to an officer in the Cairo police criminal investigation department whom I spoke to yesterday, all the officers responsible for the violence which left well over 300 Egyptians dead have fled Egypt with their families for the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The criminals who were paid by the cops to beat the protesters have gone to ground – who knows when their services might next be required? – while the middle-ranking police officers wait for justice to take its course against them. If indeed it does.

All this, of course, depends on the size of the archives left behind by the regime and the degree to which the authorities, currently the army, are prepared to make these papers available to a new and reformed judiciary. As for the city police, who hid in their police stations before they were burned down on 28th January, they turned up at the interior ministry in Cairo yesterday to demand better pay. That the police should now become protesters themselves – they are indeed to receive pay rises – was one of the more imperishable moments of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Now, of course, it is Egypt's turn to watch the effects of its own revolution on its neighbours. Scarcely a family in Egypt was unaware yesterday of the third day of protests against the president in Yemen and the police violence which accompanied them. And it is remarkable that just as Arab protesters mimic their successful counterparts in Egypt, the state security apparatus of each Arab regime faithfully follows the failed tactics of Mubarak's thugs.

Another irony has dawned on Egyptians. Those Arab dictators which claim to represent their people – Algeria comes to mind, and Libya, and Morocco – have signally failed to represent their people by not congratulating Egypt on its successful democratic revolution. To do so, needless to say, would be to saw off the legs of their own thrones.

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