By Paul Martin

In the aftermath of the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime, the heavily industrial city of Suez provides a unique glimpse into the real problems Egypt now faces, and the possible solutions.

A military officer standing beside a tank in the teeming Arbaeen district of the city stated, "Violence in the Revolution started here, and we are going to make sure it ends here." The Third Army, which has a massive base in the desert about forty kilometres away, is deployed all around the city of a million people situated at the southern tip of the Suez Canal, linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, and carrying much of Europe's oil supplies. The Third Army commander himself can be seen at a roadside table, discussing various grievances with local people. Days after the Mubarak regime collapsed, the commander also personally handed out presents inside the main civilian hospital to scores of people wounded in the clashes between people and police.

It was highly unfamiliar territory for an army that has often been a class apart, a cut above the rest of Egyptian society. It is generally well-run, internet-savvy and efficient, offering superb recreational facilities and privileges for its officer class. The Armed Forces run several economic and trading enterprises. Since 1952, when King Farouk was bloodlessly overthrown, Egypt's three successive presidents - Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar El Sadat and Mubarak - were all senior armed forces officers. But the army itself prefers to work from the sidelines.

"We're trained to fight enemies and defend our borders, not solve local squabbles or decide what money to spend on which projects," another officer stated.

Law and order has returned to the streets of Suez, just as in the rest of the country, and while the crucial steel plants and cement factories reduced production during the disturbances, they did not close. Oil-tankers, cargo vessels and some warships traversed the waterway even as protests and violence engulfed the city on several days in late January and early February. In the Arbaeen district the people vented their anger on the hated internal security agencies. A police station and the fire brigade headquarters, controlled in Egypt by the police, were gutted.

A local doctor, who is also the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for election in this area, took a break from his surgery for young children and newborns to provide full details of 24 men killed in the violence from January 25 to February 11, including the first three deaths in the entire countrywide upheaval. Throughout Egypt, according to medical sources, an estimated 350 lost their lives. In a country of eighty million people, the death toll in Suez was proportionally the highest in the country.

Without the steadying, imposing and impressive army presence, the town would become ungovernable. Seen by most in Egypt as having backed and even facilitated the removal of the Mubarak clique, the army's role is currently respected by all classes and its orders are obeyed. In Suez it imposes a strict curfew at midnight, with tanks on guard at most street corners, mosques and the city's large church.

During the unrest an aged imam from the Arbaeen area became a symbol for the young revolutionaries, who whisked him off to address the crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square. His Mosque of the Martyrs bears pictures and names of five men who died fighting the Israeli troops when they briefly occupied that part of the city during the 1973 October War. The imamis credited with leading that resistance.

Perhaps as a legacy of the Israeli occupation, or perhaps because it is a low-income segment of society, hostility to any foreigners on the streets of Arbaeen is visceral. The mood rapidly turns ugly when a reporter is not being escorted and protected by a soldier. "They assume every foreigner going through here could be a spy. We had an Israeli engineer here recently who lost his tour group, and was nearly lynched," explains an army officer.

Across the Canal lies the Sinai Desert with its oilfields, all returned to Egypt following the 1979 peace treaty. At its southern tip, an ailing cancer-ridden Mubarak, his half-Welsh wife Suzanne and their businessman son Alaa are encamped in a luxurious villa, under strict guard by the Army that has overthrown them.

His own villa may be a haven of tranquility, but in the wake of the Revolution there is heavy pressure for Egypt to reassert its military control of the entire peninsula, rather than abide by the treaty's almost total ban on an Egyptian military presence there. So far, though, not even the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to gain most from the recent turn of events, is calling for the Treaty's abrogation. "We will abide by existing treaties," the city's Muslim Brotherhood chief told me, after making a fiery speech that was warmly applauded by locals at what was billed as a celebration of Mohamed's birthday. The event also included blaring music by a band and a sermon by an imam. The Brotherhood, founded in the 1920s and authors of a failed coup, was crushed by Nasser but partially tolerated by Sadat and Mubarak. Its leadership is playing a careful waiting game, promising not to contest the presidential election but instead to advise its supporters which candidate to vote for. It expects to gain thirty percent of the parliamentary vote. It already wields influence indirectly: in Suez and Ismailia senior Brotherhood members are in high positions, for example, in the Suez Canal Authority.

Across the border in Sinai, the tumultuous events in Egypt will have their consequences too. In the 1980s the Brotherhood created Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist movement, and its leaders in Gaza are hoping to benefit from the impending official legalisation of their long-banned but tolerated founders. The more influence the Brotherhood can wield in the next Egyptian parliament and within some of the country's new power structures, the better it should be for Hamas.

That said, the recent turn of events also presents a danger to Gaza's Islamists. The same sort of security-obsessed repression that characterised the latter years of the Mubarak regime, together with massive cronyism, is also apparent inside Gaza under Hamas rule, which was itself imposed by force through four days of bloody fighting in 2007. By comparison Egypt allowed more freedom of the media under Mubarak than the Gaza authorities do now inside the Strip. As I explained in The World Today in October 2010, Hamas has been deeply unpopular of late. It is unlikely that this will change much - even though its equally corrupt rival Fatah has also lost credibility in Palestinian eyes through revelations that the negotiators for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had been expressing willingness, in return for being granted a State of Palestine, to be flexible about previously sacrosanct Palestinian demands over land and refugees.

A new Egyptian regime might feel it should end the restrictions that have made official commercial trade with Gaza almost non-existent. But things in the Middle East are rarely simple or obvious. Hamas is doing so well financially out of the myriad tunnels that burrow under the Gaza-Egypt border that it has little incentive to have an open above-ground transit route. Unless and until its Brotherhood colleagues are in control of Egypt (and that is far from certain), Hamas gains more from a sense of siege, so it can justify its repression, its financial control, and its image of embattlement. Ironically, Hamas has of late taken to preventing many Israeli-made products getting into Gaza, as it can make bigger profits from imposing taxes on similar goods and making use of a gas pipeline, flowing through the Gaza-Egypt tunnels. The Egyptian events may provide a spark for insurrection inside Gaza: Hamas now worries about a seething protest movement developing inside its own small borders. The Hamas security forces have already shown they are ruthless in stamping out dissent - the last major expression of opposition to Hamas came at a birthday celebration in 2007 for Yasser Arafat, during which seven people at the rally were shot dead.

Fatah also faces potential popular discontent against its Palestinian Authority inside the area it controls, the West Bank. However, on a recent visit to the largest West Bank Palestinian city Nablus, it was evident that ordinary people, at least for the time being, welcome the effective end of conflict with Israel. All but a small handful of former Fatah fighters against the Israelis have laid down their arms and been taken off Israel's merciless hit-list. Properly-functioning traffic lights and even parking meters have made an appearance. New shopping malls are opening. But it is not clear whether the improvements have made local people any less resentful of Fatah's self-empowering rule.

Israel is clearly worried that the overthrow of Egypt's president may presage a greater degree of at least verbal hostility from Egypt along the lines of the recent Turkish volte face. Yet there is also a dividend for Israel: the Arab world at last is getting to grips with the key problem of the region: serious maladministration, repression and stagnation within Arab societies and politics. In that sense, Israel's vibrant and at times virulent democracy provides a model others in the region are hoping to emulate. It also shows the United States and Europe pressuring Israel to make concessions over the Palestinian-Israeli dispute was not and is not any magic key to maintaining Middle East order and stability. Recent regional events arguably show that Western foreign policy has focused too much on that paradigm rather than the more fundamental issue of engaging in efforts to coax genuine internal reform within Arab nations.

Nor is it right to assume that the Revolution threatens only pro-Western governments in the region. Syria also runs a viciously repressive totalitarian regime headed by men from a minority sect, the Alawites, and is ripe for an eventual upheaval. The Egyptian model of internal resistance is being copied in Iran, though in all likelihood that revolt lacks a key ingredient: unlike in Egypt, there is no evidence of the army being able or willing to end the rule of the Ayatollahs.

In the meantime, Egypt struggles to provide an alternative model of government, more responsive to popular needs and less to the fiefdom of one man and his cronies. There is a reckoning to be done. When asked by a British reporter whether the new Army-appointed government was calling on banks worldwide to suspend Mubarak's alleged colossal accounts, new Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik said: "Absolutely." It later transpired he had meant" "Absolutely not." But some of Mubarak's cronies, and especially his minister of interior, health and tourism, are banned from leaving Egypt as their vast financial gains are investigated. Mubarak's cabinet was divided into three groups, those owing allegiance to the potential successor in the Mubarak dynasty, younger son Gamal, those owing allegiance to wife Suzanne, and the remainder in place through the president's decree. It was hardly a formula for good government.

Inside Cairo's television building, dozens of troops mill around, and some guards man machine-guns trained on the entrance doors. The Army is issuing communiqués through television, trying to get people back to work - strikes and long simmering worker anger are the next danger to the interim regime - and to accept the speed and depth of change that the armed forces are marshalling. Things are moving fast. Within a week of taking power the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued orders for the drafting of a new Constitution, setting an almost impossibly short ten days for the task, and promised a referendum within two months. Some things have not yet changed. By mid-February it had not yet abrogated the State of Emergency that has been renewed each of the last thirty years. But its commitment to parliamentary and presidential elections by October is the real litmus test.

The Army's commander-in-chief, General Sami Anan, runs the Armed Forces from an ornate old-style building in a suburb appropriately called New Egypt. But is it? So far, the evidence suggests a cautious yes. It appears likely that the army will not just call the shots but will lay a stable foundation for the future. As one army officer told me: "For the Old Guard, it is Game Over." We shall see.


Paul Martin was a BBC Correspondent in Cairo from 1978-1983, and is currently making a documentary about the role of the Armed Forces in post-Mubarak Egypt.


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