• Email
  • Print

Egypt: The Hidden Truth

rashidi_1-081612.jpg
Sherif Abd El Minoem/Handout/Reuters
Newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi (center) with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (left), and Egyptian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan (right), at a military ceremony in Alexandria, July 5, 2012

To arrive at the “new” Cairo International Airport is to arrive, in reality, at terminal three—an optimistically shiny marble edifice commissioned at a cost of $347 million by Ahmed Shafik, the former minister of civil aviation, who became the former prime minister and a losing presidential candidate. Built by a Turkish contractor for a higher price than Istanbul’s own airport expansion, the CIA is both deceptively functional and selectively used (it’s reserved mainly for the domestic airline; most international airlines are banished to the old terminal one, referred to as “the hall” or “the old airport”).

Although it has a state-of-the-art computerized system to deal with arrivals, the new airport stubbornly deploys several uniformed officers to triple-check what the computer has confirmed. Armed men glance speculatively at the traveler’s coin-sized arrival stamp bearing the day’s date and a small outline of an airplane, along with six mentions of “Egypt.” Such is the logic of the country—an administration that has achieved supremacy in the creation of idle jobs. Duplicity is its mainstay.

Beyond the sliding glass doors of the terminal, and along the main road leading into the city, the establishments of a titanic and looming administration are everywhere: the Presidential Election Committee, the Technical College of the Armed Forces, the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, the National Accounting Bureau, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the National Information Center, the Legal Department of the Authority, the General Authority for Capital Market, the Military Judiciary Office, the Ministry of Planning, the Public Notary, and various ranks of intelligence offices. These buildings, with their gray façades, their rows of square windows, their sometimes palatial interiors concealed behind miles of wall, and the many and heavily armed and sometimes deceptively plainclothed guards that surround them, form the anatomy of Egyptian life. At the heart of the city, one of them—the Mugamma, the government’s central office building—forms the conspicuous backdrop to Tahrir Square.

It is from within these highly placed institutions that information has leaked and swirled in recent weeks and since the revolution broke out in January 2011. We hear most about the military council—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF—which has been governing the country since Hosni Mubarak resigned. We also hear about the Americans, who had allegedly reached a deal that the council would cede power to the Islamists. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was rightly predicted to win the presidential election. Mubarak was said to be sick, in a coma, clinically dead; or the Mubaraks were in London; Morsi sold the Brotherhood out; the SCAF sold out Morsi’s opponent, Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister appointed by the departing Mubarak; the country was on the brink of civil war.

Two days before the presidential election results were announced on June 24, Al-Dustor newspaper ran across its front page, in big, bold, black and red print, the headline “The Massacre of the Century,” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged plan for Egypt, which supposedly called for assassinations and disorder. The paper cited intelligence sources and a secret meeting of the Brotherhood.

By the pool at the Gezira Sporting Club that morning, a group of retired army generals and high-ranking intelligence officers spoke with assurance of Shafik’s coming win. The officer really in charge of the country, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, commander in chief of the armed forces, “won’t have it any other way,” so it was said. Later that day, when I chatted with a former Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan, he vehemently contradicted them. “It will be Morsi, it’s what the Americans want.”

These speculations, stories spun by insider sources and cast as fact, the many armed—often young—men in the streets, the deceptive titles of commander of this or that, have been central to the daily life of this country of 82 million (official figure), or 91 million (speculated figure). It was, in the end, these official buildings, the efficient tedium of the line of command in one bureaucracy after another, that kept Egyptians—a sizable portion of them—going through the past eighteen months of upheaval.

It also kept them attentive, wondering what next, debating the different outcomes, shifting their alliances as predictions were circulated and spun. At the Foreign Ministry, a mid-career diplomat tells me that even with the removal of senior ministers, the “chain of production” continues: “You know what to do every day, down to the office boy who runs errands. You keep going.” In the months without a president, El-Tahrir newspaper reported one day in June, the Presidential Diwan, or office, spent $48.5 million—$5 million more than its average annual expenditure. It kept going. The factories of the businessmen who were closely associated with the Mubaraks and were charged and convicted of crimes also keep going. I see one of those tycoons frequently at that same club where the generals sit by the poolside.

In a recent session of the short-lived Parliament’s Planning and Budget Committee—short-lived because the Parliament that was elected by January 11, 2012, was dismissed by the military council on June 14—the matter of government employees was brought up for discussion. The committee had found that the total number of government employees had risen from 2.5 million in 1982–1983 to 5.4 million today, despite a hiring freeze imposed in 1999, when the number of employees was between 3 and 4.2 million, depending on whose count you choose to consider.

Of those, 300,000 were found to have been appointed under the current Cabinet, i.e., in the past few months. “We demand an explanation,” one MP cried out, to no effect. The Parliament and its committees were dissolved before the matter could be investigated further, but if one were to dig a little deeper, one could discover the various studies showing that there were 5.7 million government employees in 2009, and closer to 7 million today.

Meeting with Ashraf Abdelwahab, the minister of state for administrative development, I asked about these numbers. He swiftly mentioned the figure seven, “or maybe twelve.” Million? “Yes, but I don’t know for sure. You know, nothing is sure. It’s hard to come by accurate figures.” I asked him about the agency called CAPMAS (the official source of statistical data and reports on Egypt for all state agencies and international organizations) and the National Intelligence Council (NIC), both a few doors down from the ministry on that same thoroughfare to and from the airport—“don’t they have figures?”

As if to be polite about a naive question, he laughed, and the conversation moved on, to the grand task of his ministry, which is to decentralize government, reform the bureaucracy, weed out corruption, and install automation of public services. “That is, if the ministry survives.” On January 30 of last year, when Ahmed Shafik was appointed prime minister by Mubarak, he decided that the ministry should be scratched off the government map. The following day, its dissolution was announced. “We were a liability,” the minister said. “We had conducted studies on corruption and other sensitive topics, so it was decided that it would be better if we simply didn’t exist; if we were wiped out.” (Mubarak had ordered that these studies stay locked in a drawer.)

But where would they go, the employees of a system that guarantees permanent employment? For a period of fifty-three days last year during Shafik’s time as prime minister and for some weeks after, the ministry was simply hidden from view—wedged in a low-ranking spot in the hierarchy of the Central Agency for Organization and Administration (CAOA). It was renamed an “administrative development department.” “We were still there, working, doing what we do, operating on the full ministry budget, but nobody knew.”

I asked the minister, as well, about the “chain of production.” He laughed. “There is a chain, but it doesn’t produce.” He explained away the 300,000 new government employees (“maybe closer to 450,000, or even a million”) as the result of pressure to hire. People were protesting at the gates of every ministry, so “we had to hire anyone who wanted a job last year. We were repeating the same mistake we’ve been making for decades, which is to use the administration to make angry people feel a bit more comfortable. It was a political decision.” I asked him if he raised the problem of such hiring to the Cabinet. “I didn’t exist then, it was when I was wiped out.”

Some nights later, at dinner with an American friend who has served as a consultant to the government of Egypt since the 1980s, she threw up her hands when I mentioned new employees. “There isn’t a single job description for anyone in government! And as for figures—it’s not that there aren’t figures, but that each ministry, each government body, has a different set of figures! They even have different maps! If you’re lucky, like I was, you have access to the prime minister and you can get hold of either accurate figures, or an agreed-upon compromise of the various sets of figures.”

I ventured from ministry to ministry and into the Nile Delta over the weeks leading up to and past the presidential elections. I met with ministers, desk clerks, town mayors, government office managers, and chatted in hallways with office boys and the women in government buildings who sell toilet paper on a case-by-case basis for a tip.

In some ministries, I was struck by the rectangular dust marks on walls that I took to indicate where Hosni Mubarak’s picture once hung. “The pictures came down spontaneously, there was definitely no written order,” a Foreign Ministry manager told me. “We never had Mubarak pictures here,” a senior executive at the state media empire, Al-Ahram, told me. And when I pressed him: “Or maybe just pictures of the president with important journalists. The picture in the presidential palace came down by mistake, you know.” When I had dinner with the veteran publisher and regime critic Hisham Kassem, I asked him about this. “In some cases they most certainly came down by court decree,” he said.

On June 26, the day after my dinner with Hisham, and two days after the declaration that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, had been elected president (he won with 51.7 percent of the vote, to Ahmed Shafik’s 48.3 percent), Morsi’s spokesperson announced that his picture should not be hung up in public offices or schools. And no congratulatory advertisements should be placed in newspapers either, please. “A written order will soon be issued.” On my way to Al-Ahram‘s offices one afternoon later that week, I saw a portrait of Morsi go up anyway—at Abu Al Farag elementary school.

At the supermarket sponsored by the Armed Forces Club on 26th of July Street—commemorating the day in 1956 when Egypt seized the Suez Canal—people were anxiously buying goods on the morning of June 21, the day the election results were to be announced. I picked up a packet of sugar (which sells at four cents less than the price in regular supermarkets), a bottle of oil, and some flour (we were warned to stock up on “staple foods” and I wasn’t sure what I should buy). Banks were closing early, some businesses had given employees the day off, government offices had emptied, and around noon, a memo began to circulate at Al-Ahram asking all staff members to be out of the building by 1 PM.

On Sunday, June 17—the second of the second two days of the election—the members of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued an annex to the constitutional declaration that was drafted and voted on last March, and later amended. The annex limits the president’s powers, giving the SCAF the right of veto over the drafting of a new constitution, as well as legislative powers until a new Parliament is elected. The annex stated, moreover, that the SCAF remains responsible for the public budget, and it gave the right to appoint the head of the armed forces not to the elected president but to the SCAF itself. Both the Islamists and many in the opposition were outraged, calling it a “soft coup” and once again taking to the square.

Just days before, on June 14, in a double verdict issued minutes apart, the Supreme Constitutional Court had dissolved the recently elected, Islamist-dominated Parliament, calling it unconstitutional. The court had simultaneously announced that Ahmed Shafik was eligible to continue his run for president, despite a law banning high-ranking members of the former regime from public office. There was, on this Thursday morning, June 21, four days after the polls had closed, a fear that the Islamists, who had in the past demonstrated in Tahrir Square, would storm government buildings. There was fear of bloodshed. Everyone I know was on edge.

rashidi_2-081612.jpg
Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and former President Hosni Mubarak as two sides of the same face on graffiti in Tahrir Square, Cairo, June 25, 2012

Days before any of this had been announced, Mona Makram Ebeid—a member of the advisory council appointed by the SCAF last December and a former MP—had told me that the special annex giving the military council oversight powers over the drafting of a new constitution had been the advisory council’s idea. The drafting of the constitution had reached a stalemate following the Islamists’ attempt to dominate and monopolize the 100-member constituent assembly that had been formed to draft it in March (a group of which Mona was also a member). On June 5, in a final show of goodwill toward the Islamist-dominated Parliament, the SCAF had given them a forty-eight-hour ultimatum to put together a new, representative, constituent assembly, in which the Islamists would have up to 50 percent of the seats. The Islamists once again tried to monopolize the assembly through a power grab, or takweesh, of seats (takweesh is a term that was used politically in the past to describe attempts by Mubarak’s sons to monopolize power and wealth, and revived to refer to the Islamists). Now, in early July, there is still no Parliament.

An army source and family friend had told us weeks before that the SCAF would never let the Islamists have full power—the SCAF‘s constitutional annex had been brewing for weeks; the advisory council’s proposal was, in effect, a green light for the military council to finally issue the annex. He also said that the army had already been quietly deployed around the country. “They are everywhere, even if you can’t see them.”

That Thursday morning, June 21, the election commission was still looking into the four hundred allegations of fraud filed by the two candidates following the second round of voting on June 16 and 17, and by the afternoon, it appeared that the results were under a cloud of doubt. There were allegations that the names of the deceased were being used as voters, that the Islamists had been intimidating the Copts, and that ballots had been preprinted showing votes in favor of Morsi. We heard that the final results would be delayed by two, maybe three, days. At the Ministry of State for Administrative Development, which had created the election system, its database, and its websites, the minister Ashraf Abdelwahab and his aides confirmed to me that, yes, there were most definitely names of dead people on voter lists. When people die in Egypt, they continue to exist in the system; their national IDs remain valid and usable—until such time as the IDs are submitted, along with the death certificate, to the various appropriate authorities and physically canceled. “Nobody does that with their dead, it’s too much of a hassle.”

I spoke with Minister Abdelwahab of a conversation with a campaign strategist for Amre Moussa, the former minster of foreign affairs who was defeated as a presidential candidate. The strategist described to me how convoluted the campaign process is for candidates. It was, he said, impossible to run an independent campaign. The rules—such as the requirement that candidates can’t open a campaign bank account until the day before the three-week campaign period begins—force the candidates to break them. (“They were made to make it impossible to contest Mubarak without being disqualified.”)

Minister Abdelwahab, a rather jolly man, responded that it’s true, the system is made to break those who want to change it—including reform-minded gentleman like himself. “But on my part,” he told me, “I can say that if there was a single thing that was achieved in this transitional period, it was the creation of the automated election system and the OCV.” That is, “Out of Country Voters,” who were allowed to vote for the first time. “If I return from my upcoming business trip to New York and I am no longer minister, or there is no ministry, I will be satisfied with what we’ve done.”

As I walked home from the supermarket that Thursday morning, June 21, my phone rang. It was Mona. “Any news?” she asked. I had seen Mona at her house before, and I could tell she was pacing as she talked. She meant news from the street. We discussed the various possibilities, and their implications for her own political future (she had been approached by several candidates as a possible Copt vice-president, and had also been asked by Kamal Ganzouri, the interim prime minister from the National Democratic Party, to join his cabinet, which she refused). “You know, Yasmine,” she told me before she hung up, “As nerve-wracking as it’s been, as much as we’ve been kept on edge, this has been the most exciting year of my life. My whole life. And I’m your parents’ age, you know.”

On June 24, the election results were finally released, with Mohamed Morsi winning by 3.4 percentage points over Ahmed Shafik. I met with Magda Boutros, the director of criminal justice reform at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). President-elect Morsi had already denounced talk of purging the Interior Ministry (whose employees, incidentally, received pay raises the week before), and he seemed ready to work with those same forces—both within the Interior Ministry and outside it—who for decades had persecuted him and his group, the long-outlawed and now ascendant Muslim Brotherhood. The Interior Ministry had changed its slogan to “The Police in the Service of the People” soon after the revolution, and the Amn Dawla—State Security—had theoretically been dismantled but in fact simply been renamed Amn Watany—National Security.

Last year, in one of its biggest initiatives of reform, the Interior Ministry spoke, in abstract terms, of dismissing approximately five hundred employees. What happened to them? Magda explained to me they were simply shifted into new positions, and often got promotions. “Some of them were of retiring age and had simply retired.”

I asked her about the many police officers and conscripts who were charged in cases related to the killing of protesters during the revolution. What happened to them? Most of them, she said, have returned to their posts, sometimes with some reshuffling to different districts, often with pay raises.

And what about the case of the 189 prisoners who were shot during the revolution? She sighed. The prosecutor, she said, submitted a file that was inadequate, incomplete, inconclusive, even though the evidence was clear. There were dozens of bullet holes all over the walls of the prisons. The prisoners were shot by their guards. And what of the prosecutor who was appointed by Mubarak and filed evidence in the Mubarak trial?

I didn’t need her to answer—I already knew from Ramy Raoof of EIPR and Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch and other lawyers and political figures and reports that cases compiled by the prosecutor’s office have been “shoddy.” Or in the cases where human rights groups have submitted substantial evidence directly to the court, political verdicts appear to have been reached. Evidence of wrongdoing routinely disappears or is dismissed as inadequate, insufficient. (“For the Mubarak trial we submitted five hundred gigabytes of evidence showing police killing protesters, how can that be inadequate?” Ramy said.)

There has, though, been one achievement in advancing human rights since Mubarak stepped down—the abolition of the Emergency Law, which had been in place since 1981 and allowed the authorities to arrest people at will without regard for their rights. But like practically everything else, Magda fears the law will be rewritten by the state and indirectly replaced. “When they came to power last year, the SCAF added two articles to the criminal law making baltaga—thuggery—a criminal offense.” The provisions of the law are vague—the definition of thuggery can include scaring other people, or having a threatening or menacing attitude. As Magda put it, “It’s a catch-all phrase that could include anyone, really, and its been used to arrest people massively over the past year. Now everyone is focused on thugs.”

I scan newspaper clips since the abolishment of the Emergency Law, and find that Magda is right. The minister of interior, the prosecutor, and the head of national security all say they are committed to cracking down on baltaga. They cite it as their top priority. Magda admits that she worries Egypt will shift from a security state that was oppressing political opponents to a security state that cracks down hard and arbitrarily on crime and becomes brutal in its law enforcement—“like in Latin America after their revolutions.”

How many employees, I ask her, work for the Ministry of Interior? She is unsure. “It’s considered a breach of national security” to know. I had asked Minister Ashraf this question too. (The ministries have signed an agreement to create, as a joint venture, a network between police stations, the ministry, and the prosecutor’s office.) He said he could only cite an approximate figure, but the ministry, and others, would likely refute it. I write in my notebook: “nobody knows.”

On Friday, June 29, President Morsi addressed hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square. I watched the speech partly from the square itself, and then from home, on state TV, when the crowds and heat became too much. Now he, and the square, and the whole downtown area, were protected—for his sake—by presidential guards and the secret service and snipers. A phalanx of government guards tried to shield him as he moved away from the podium and across the stage toward the crowds. His security people panicked as he pushed them away and moved forward onto the stage. The question everyone was asking was whether he would change the system. Or would those who run the system simply change in small ways to accommodate, and then break him, and turn him into one of their own?

This was, in the end, a president with limited and opaque powers; one who was fighting to revive a dissolved Parliament, and who might be forced to work without one for a while. He was a president whose budget for the coming year had been set by powers other than his own (the former Cabinet drafted a 2012–2013 budget, which has been approved by the SCAF). A president who has been described as “transitional” and unlikely to complete his four-year term.

President-elect Morsi, in a sweeping, thirty-seven-minute-long speech, tried to appeal to all factions of the population—including the family of the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in New York of plotting to bomb New York City targets, and whose relatives were present in Tahrir wielding conspicuous banners. During his speech Morsi said that he saw their banners and would ask for the extradition of the sheikh just as he would try to release the civilians who had been put through military trials in Egypt. (His spokesperson later said that Morsi would try to have Sheikh Rahman extradited on “humanitarian” grounds but was not asking for his conviction to be overturned.)

He was also setting himself up for possible failure. How would he deliver on promises of jobs and economic growth and prosperity with the many constraints on power, and the bloated administration and national debt and depleted reserves, that he had inherited?

The Saturday morning after that speech, I texted a businessman and former associate of Gamal Mubarak’s, asking him, apologetically, if we could reschedule an appointment we had set for that day. I apologized for any disruption to his schedule. He texted back immediately: No problem, it’s called adaptive bureaucracy. I immediately thought of the disappearing ministry, which didn’t disappear. Of the presidential portraits. Of the Criminal Justice Law. Of the security apparatus. Of those guards in Tahrir. In years past, students in the public school system were asked, at times, to write letters to the beloved president as part of composition exams. This year, they were asked to write to the “beloved Armed Forces.”

That same morning, President Morsi was to be sworn in before the Supreme Constitutional Court. He would, as part of standard protocol, be saluted by Field Marshal Tantawi, as chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. For a military man to salute an Islamist in public would, in Egypt, be understood by many as a defeat, and a source told Reuters that Tantawi would never allow such a sight to be seen. We wondered how they would maneuver their way out of this one. It was announced, some minutes before the swearing-in, that the session would be recorded and broadcast later. Only state tv cameras would be let in. The salute, so it was understood, would be edited out.

In the end, after a two-hour delay, the swearing-in was broadcast live—at the insistence of the judges, who alleged that it was President Morsi who was the one who had not wanted to be seen swearing the oath before the very court that had dissolved the Parliament. In the end, Morsi swore the oath four times over the course of two days, and he was, eventually, saluted once.

Postscript

On July 8, after Morsi called for the court-dissolved Parliament to reconvene, the Supreme Constitutional Court responded that its verdict was “final and binding.” The Parliament nevertheless met on the morning of July 10 for a six-minute session that concluded with a vote approving the referral of the SCC‘s decision to a high court of appeals and subsequently suspending Parliament. Later that day, the Supreme Constitutional Court issued a ruling suspending the presidential decree to reinstate the Parliament. Whether it will meet again is open to question.

—July 12, 2002

  • Email
  • Print