February 19, 2011

Egypt Trip Report: Part I

If you've been following my Twitter feed, you'll know I arrived in Cairo a few days ago and will be here for another few days doing some research. I tacked this short visit onto a trip to Europe to help train a unit preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, and I must say it's good to be back in the Arabic-speaking world during what continues to be an exciting time in the region.

This is my first trip back to Egypt since living here for seven months in 2006, and since I am no one's idea of an expert on Egypt and Egyptian politics, I am grateful to my friends here in Cairo for hosting me and providing me with plenty of people to meet with.

The research questions I'll be trying to answer here concern the position in which the Egyptian Army and other security forces now find themselves. I have two broad concerns: one is political, and one is tactical/doctrinal.

Politically, it is correct to note that the Egyptian military has more or less been one with the regime since the 1950s when the Free Officers Revolt replaced the monarchy here. But the military is at the same time in a position it has not been in for 40 years, directly involved with the day-to-day politics and decision-making in Egyptian life. Yezid Sayigh concisely and cogently explained the interests of the Egyptian Army after Mubarak in an op-ed that ran in Financial Times a week before Hosni Mubarak stood down as president. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Yezid is my advisor at King's College, where he is doggedly pushing the submitted thesis of his most wayward student through the arcane bureaucracy of the University of London at the moment -- thanks, Yezid! -- but he is also one of the world's foremost experts on soldier-state relations in the Arabic-speaking world.) I agree with his analysis of the Egyptian military and have further concerns about the seemingly inevitable clash between its interests and the interests of the young revolutionaries on the streets as well as those of everyday Egyptians who have wildly inflated expectations about life after Mubarak.

First, there is a sense you get that many Egyptians honestly feel the only thing standing in between the Egyptian nation and greatness was the sclerotic Mubarak regime. Now that Muabark is gone, the military -- and whatever government that follows -- will naturally struggle to meet those expectations.

Second, the Egyptian people have now witnessed a dramatic display of people power: mass demonstrations effectively removed from power a man who seemed immovably secure in his post just one month ago. The incentives are there for every group of people in Egypt with a grievance (which is to say everyone) to now strike or demonstrate to see, in effect, what they can get. The military is growing increasingly frustrated with these demonstrations and has ordered them to cease. But the incentive structure is all wrong: even if you don't think you'll get anything, why would you not demonstrate right now? The worst case scenario is, you get nothing. But heck, you might get something!

One of the sources of the military's frustration leads to my third concern, which is the fact that even if the people have a valid grievance, there is no real authority to negotiate with at the moment. Egypt needs a transitional government of some sort, but right now, you've got people agitating for higher wages, back pay, and more reforms on the one hand, and a military on the other hand that is not prepared in the least to hear these concerns and act on them.

That all leads to my second broad concern, which is, as I said, more tactical or even doctrinal. The Egyptian military, like most militaries, is configured for major combat operations against the armies of other states -- not for what are, in some ways, stabilization operations on the streets of Egypt itself. And as an American who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan after the conclusion of "major combat operations," it's possible to feel for the Egyptian Army at the moment.

First, the Egyptian Army is not prepared for and has no doctrine to support stabilization operations. The M1 Abrams tanks you see in downtown Cairo are as useless as the M1 Abrams tanks we had on street corners in Baghdad after the invasion. As we saw during the violence which preceded the fall of Mubarak, they're not exactly the best weapons for crowd control! (We Americans, of course, eventually made good use of those tanks in Iraq, but let's hope and pray things don't get that bad in Egypt.)

Second, we Americans paid -- and are paying -- a heavy price in Iraq and Afghanistan for the way in which the development of competent local police lags behind the development of the Army in both countries. In Cairo, at least, the police are rarely seen these days. The police officers you do see, usually directing traffic, never much respected anyway, have lost their ability to intimidate the people, who now periodically hurl abuse at them and who see themselves as having "defeated" the police during the demonstrations -- and not just in Tahrir Square but all over the countryside, where police stations burned from Upper Egypt to the Delta. But the Army trying to serve the functions of the police in preserving law and order is as awkward here as it is anywhere else. You need local police to preserve order, and though things in Cairo at the moment reflect a kind of good-natured anarchy, things might not stay that way if demonstrations continue and expectations remain unmet. (That having been said, Cairo has always been a city of neighborhoods, and locals in these neighborhoods usually do a damn fine job of preserving order on their own, thank you very much.)

Many analysts have, correctly, focused on the importance of the Army going forward. But the reconstitution and development of the police, in my mind, is probably even more important for Egypt's internal security.

So that's the kind of stuff I'm thinking about as I wander around pestering old friends and observing post-Mubarak Egypt. As anyone who follows this blog knows, I'm always more interested in what happens after a conflict or change in regime than in the conflict or regime change itself. Unfortunately for Egypt, I see more -- not less -- internal conflict and instability on the horizon. Let's all hope my initial analysis proves incorrect.