Wednesday, February 26. The story was on BBC at eight this morning. Central Security Forces (al-amn al-markazi) mutinied last night at the big camp at Dahshour and at two camps in Giza, on the road to Alexandria. Thousands of conscripts burst out of the camps and burned nearby luxury hotels. The government says that the mutiny was sparked by a false rumor that the conscripts’ tours of duty would be extended from three to four years. Many people believe the rumor was accurate.
Everyone goes to work as usual, even though people who live near the Pyramids report that shooting and burning went on through the night and that some residents joined with the insurgents. When the regular army troops came to search apartment buildings for the mutineers, some of them were hidden by residents. Several nightclubs were trashed by local youths, not by the conscripts. This afternoon, youths in the poor working-class area of Imbaba also took advantage of the absence of the security forces. When they were arrested their mothers forcibly freed them from the local police station, which local residents then set on fire. In my neighborhood of Dokki, several residents sympathize with the conscripts.
There are reports of clashes in other parts of the city. I hear later that fighting broke out between security forces and army troops in Maadi by 10 am. There were gunshots and car windows smashed in the modern shopping center on Road 9 and in the Old Maadi market. Security conscripts ran down Road 15 in their underwear (so they couldn’t be identified) smashing car windows, until helicopter gunships chased them away. Residents of Maadi could hear gunfire for hours from the east, where prisoners from Tura and mutinous conscripts had escaped toward the desert and the Muqattam hills.
Tensions had been mounting here for months. Israel’s raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunis, the Achille Lauro incident and the US Sixth Fleet’s hijacking of an Egyptian airliner all fed an anger and hurt pride that extended from people on the street to President Husni Mubarak himself. The disastrous Egyptian commando attack on an Egypt Air plane hijacked to Malta in mid-November compounded the confusion and doubt of many Cairenes about Mubarak’s policies and the regime’s close ties to Washington.
The case of Sulayman Khatir added to the credibility gap between the public and the government. Khatir was a conscript in the Central Security Forces on guard duty in Sinai who shot to death seven Israeli tourists in early October. The government argued that he had gone berserk; Khatir claimed he was following orders. Prominent intellectuals petitioned that the case be moved from the military court to a civil court, so that the full evidence would be made public. But the real shock came in January when Khatir died in a military hospital. The government stated he had committed suicide, but many Egyptians believe he was murdered by the Israeli Mossad or on orders from the Egyptian high command. Central Security police had to quell protests which broke out in his home village and in neighboring Zaqaziq, where he had been a law student.
Public discontent also had its material component. The prices of basic foods had risen noticeably. Even such staple winter foods as lentils were costly and hard to find. Government exhortations to produce more and to contribute money to reduce the national debt were greeted cynically, particularly at a time of revelations of corruption by a former minister and high-ranking bank officials. Workers struck over pay and benefits in the major factory complexes of Mahalla al-Kubra and Shubra al-Khayma; the government responded by arresting over 100 strike leaders.
All this had made Mubarak visibly angry. In an interview in the weekly al-Musawwar in January, he warned that there were limits to criticism and hinted that the critics might be worse off under another president, an apparent allusion to the alternative of military rule. Some opposition politicians feared that their newspapers would be closed down and rumors spread that Defense Minister Abu Ghazala was pressuring Mubarak to appoint him as vice president while retaining his defense portfolio.
Most Cairenes believed that these accumulating tensions were bound to lead to trouble, but that any outburst would likely come later in the year, when the impact of decreased oil production, worker remittances and tourism would be more evident. Certainly no one thought that the Central Security Force would mutiny.
The Central Security Force had been built up as a major tool for maintaining control, especially following the January 1977 bread riots in Cairo. Its tasks included directing traffic, guarding embassies, government buildings and hotels, and curbing riots. The nearly 300,000-man force included military conscripts as well as salaried security police. The conscripts were largely illiterate rural youths who did not qualify for regular military duty. No special skills or training were necessary to prepare them to stand eight hours a day outside an embassy or hotel. They lacked ties to city residents and thus the government felt safe using them to control crowds or quell student demonstrations. They lived in tents or barracks and were paid only $4-5 per month, not even enough to buy cigarettes and tea to sustain them while they stood on duty.
Today I remembered that a friend had talked to one of these young men a few years ago, a 19-year old standing guard near the Meridien Hotel. He was bewildered by the scenes of limousines bringing well-dressed gentlemen and elegant women, foreign women in shorts and sleeveless blouses, and young urban Egyptian couples holding hands. He found this behavior sinful and shocking. Someone like him would surely be receptive to the views of Muslim fundamentalists and would identify with public discontent at price rises. Perhaps the conscripts might also identify with Sulayman Khatir, feeling that he was sold out by his officers. It is difficult to know. These are not the most articulate young people. They act; they do not debate.
At 11 am the government suddenly announces a curfew for 1 pm. The nearby school closes immediately and the children are herded into buses. Shops pull down their shutters and neighbors rush to the grocer for last-minute purchases. Military jeeps park on the Sharia al-Nil, and helicopters take off and land from the Gezira Club in Zamalek. By noon the streets are jammed. Many people hurry past on foot, anxious but still good-humored.
The streets are still crowded at one o’clock and so the curfew deadline is extended until four. That day people spent four or five hours traveling from the city center to outlying areas such as Maadi and Heliopolis. By mid-afternoon my neighborhood is quiet, but there is a persistent rumor that the army will take advantage of the trouble. Some fear there will be a military-dominated government by morning.
At the US embassy, staff assembled in one building when the curfew was announced and remained there until a military convoy showed up at 5:30 pm. Presumably following a pre-set plan, they left in a convoy — two troop carriers in front, two behind, with a dozen embassy vans in between — and raced down the empty Corniche to Maadi.
Mubarak appears on television briefly at 7:30 this evening. He attributes the riots and arson to a “deviated few,” but concedes that the trouble has spread outside the capital city to the barracks near Asyout, Sohaq, Ismailiyya and Qanatir. He declares that the rumor that conscripts’ terms would be extended is totally unfounded. And he terms the mutiny a “stab in the back of the people of Egypt.” It is unclear whether Mubarak views the riots as spontaneous combustion resulting from accumulated grievances or as a conspiracy, orchestrated by Muslim fundamentalists or secular opposition parties. A rumor spreads that Mubarak is not really in charge, since he gave the address from his home in Heliopolis. Perhaps the military will not let him move freely. The president had to dispel this rumor by driving to the TV studio on the Corniche where he re-recorded the statement.
Wednesday is an anxious night.
Thursday, February 27. The curfew remains in place, with a break scheduled from eleven to two. Nevertheless, the doorman’s son is outside as usual, washing the cars. The garbage man pulls his donkey cart down the alley. The laundry is half-open, the makwagi readying clothes for delivery during the break. People seem more subdued and ambivalent. They have seen television photos of the burning Holiday Inn, the blackened front of Sahara City restaurant, the smashed cars along the Alexandria road.
This afternoon I used my press pass to drive through Dokki during curfew. There are tanks on the Nile bridges and military police check cars at the key intersections. Half-tracks and tanks surround Cairo University. I hear that students tried to demonstrate in their dorm Tuesday night, and that the night shift in a factory in Shubra al-Khayma attempted to strike. Some believe that if the military had not acted swiftly to contain the situation the unrest could easily have spread. The regime’s vulnerability and dependence on the army are suddenly very apparent.
Today Mubarak called an emergency cabinet session and then met with the heads of all the political parties, apparently trying to balance the military pressures with civilian political forces. His behavior contrasts sharply with Sadat’s in January 1977. In fact, the party leaders join him in denouncing the violence, evidently fearing social chaos or a military takeover if the government’s fragility is further exposed.
Friday, February 28. Today Mubarak replaced Interior Minister Ahmad Rushdi with police Maj. Gen. Zaki Badi, the tough governor of Asyout, where serious disturbances have broken out several times in recent years. Nine senior police officials are also replaced. The curfew is lifted from nine until three, so I drive to the Pyramids. The Carvery, an American-style buffet restaurant on the Kirdasa Road, is blackened, but other popular restaurants there appear untouched. The two Holiday Inns are gutted; wisps of smoke still rise from the Holiday Inn Pyramids. The Jolie Ville Hotel, directly across from the Central Security barracks, has been torched, smashed cars still parked in the driveway. The mutineers must have dashed into this hotel first, then headed south, burning several restaurants on the Alexandria road. Virtually every nightclub along the Pyramids Road has been hit. Their names — Parisiana, Arizona, Ramses, Andalusia, Leil, Blow Up Disco — are hard to decipher now. Tanks and half-tracks guard key points. Their crews look relaxed, except at the Central Security barracks, where some security recruits and officers are still holed up inside. The TV later shows them being forced out at 2 pm, shortly before Mubarak visited the area.
The government is nervous about the Friday noon prayers, and tries to restrict crowds by keeping public buses off the streets. People tend to stay in their neighborhoods, uncertain as to what is happening. None of the police carry guns today.
Saturday, March 1. The curfew is lifted from six in the morning to six at night. Saturdays tend to be quiet, since banks and most government offices are closed. Today schools and universities are also shut, and won’t reopen until March 8. Shops and factories are functioning, and public buses are running.
Despite the air of normality, there is still a feeling of unease.We hear about pockets of resistance, of escaped conscripts hiding in the City of the Dead. There is also a deeper apprehension, that the country is in a profound crisis. This is the first confrontation ever between security forces and the army, two key instruments of power, and its implications are not yet fully absorbed. The confrontation has underlined the government’s dependence on the armed forces, but it has also strengthened the opposition parties’ argument that the people must be integrated into the political process through a full democratization of public institutions. There is a sense that Mubarak must embark on a new course. But what course and in which direction? As I depart at dawn on Sunday, the direction is still unclear.