Saviors in Uniform? (William Norman Grigg)
Wednesday February 2nd, 2011
"The army is all good men but the police, every policeman is bad," explained Egyptian demonstrator Mustafa Abdel Wahab to Time magazine. Mr. Wahab is as tragically mistaken in the first assessment as he is correct in the second.
In Egypt -- as is the case nearly everywhere else -- the police and army are what Alexander Hamilton called "correspondent appendages of military establishments." Not every individual soldier or policeman is exceptionally depraved, of course. But the institutional purpose of such establishments is to serve the depraved interests of those who control the State. This is why, as Hamilton pointed out, military bodies (which include police agencies) "have a tendency to destroy ... civil and political rights." Decades of "emergency" rule in Egypt have destroyed whatever trivial substantive differences may once have separated the police from the military.
In the late summer of 1994 I spent a couple of weeks in Cairo covering a United Nations conference on population control. That event attracted thousands of people -- politicians, delegates, lobbyists, activists, and journalists -- from around the world. In anticipation of media scrutiny the Mubarak regime made a considerable effort to prettify itself. The cosmetic changes included issuing brand new white uniforms to the heavily-armed police officers who were deployed in small groups everywhere in downtown Cairo.
I remained in Cairo for a few days after the conference ended. It was my expectation that the departure of the Important People would bring about a change in the security situation. In a sense, I was correct: The white uniforms were put away, and the heavily-armed police who prowled the streets reverted to their standard military attire. Like other visitors, I had assumed that the high-profile police presence was the exception, rather than the rule. We were wrong.
The ongoing upheaval in Egypt offers a potent illustration of the fact that government police agencies are instruments of plunder, rather than protection -- and that protection of person and property is best handled privately.
When they weren't beating people in the streets or hauling them off to be murdered, plainclothes thugs from Egypt's Central Security Service (or Mukhabarat) brazenly looted private businesses or provided protection to those who did -- deputized criminals referred to by one protester on the scene as "prisoners who have been released by that bastard Mubarak in return for their services to beat up civilians." Egyptians not employed in the coercive sector responded by creating private anti-looting patrols.
Public loathing of the government's police force is widespread in Egypt, which is a healthy development in any society. However, as Mr. Wahab's comments illustrate, the growing disrepute of Egypt's police organs organs has actually enhanced the stature of the military.
Writes Steve Coll of The New Yorker: "There have been reports that protesters are relieved to see the Army in the streets; no doubt, as in many other like countries, the Army has more credibility than the corrupt and often torture-prone police."
For 31 years, Hosni Mubarak has been a CIA sock puppet ruling through decree while maintaining a pretense of "legitimacy." Mubarak avoided naming a successor, most likely because Washington didn't give him permission to do so. In the terminal crisis of his reign, he has tapped Omar Suleiman, the head of the Mukhabarat secret police, to serve as vice president. Since Suleiman has been running Egypt's apparatus of imprisonment, torture, and murder for decades, this appointment wasn't really a promotion. And in his current position Suleiman would be in charge, even if somebody else is cast in the role of figurehead.
Ian Black, Middle East editor for the London Guardian, points out that Suleiman "is the keeper of Egypt's and the president's secrets, a behind-the-scenes operator who has been intimately involved in the most sensitive issues of national security and foreign policy for nearly 20 years."
Not only was he was the dungeon master and chief persecutor of Egypt's political dissidents, but he also coordinated rendition and torture operations with the CIA. He's also been a dutiful asset of the Pentagon, according to WikiLeaks.
A Foreign Policy profile of Suleiman published two years ago points out that Suleiman was a rent boy for both sides during the Cold War circle-jerk: He attended "the Soviet Union's Frunze Military Academy" while Cairo was a Soviet client, and then "received training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center" at Ft. Bragg in the 1980s. As head of the Mukhabarat, Suleiman was"one of a rare group of Egyptian officials who hold both a military rank ... and a civilian office...." His most important assignment was to monitor "Egypt's security apparatus for signs of internal coups."
Unlike those who had previously held his position, Suleiman became a public figure several years ago as Mubarak -- who reportedly suffers from cancer-- became enfeebled. He and his handlers spent several years building internal coalitions and developing diplomatic contacts abroad. As Cairo-based journalist Issandr Amrani points out, "most Suleiman supporters recognize that to gain the presidency he would most likely have to carry out a coup -- perhaps a soft, constitutional one -- but a coup nonetheless."
Well, how about a "People Power" coup, orchestrated with the help of the kind folks in Washington? That appears to be what we're seeing in Egypt now, and we could conceivably see something similar here in the United States before the decade is over.
The convulsion in Cairo brings to mind Brig. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap's essay "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," which was published in the Winter 1992—93 issue of the U.S. Army War College journal Parameters -- a subject I have discussed before.
Dunlap used the literary device of a smuggled prison letter composed by "Prisoner 222305759," condemned to death for "treason" by the American military junta of Gen. E.T. Brutus. Following a series of military disasters overseas and domestic crises at home, Brutus staged a coup in the name of protecting "public order" from the corruption of the political class.
In the decades leading up to the putsch, the "Prisoner" recalled, "The one institution of government in which people retained faith was the military." Even as the public lamented the corruption and profligacy of Big Government, they had nothing but bottomless respect for the Regime's chief instrument of death and property destruction. The military retained its prestige in spite of the fact that its structural defects -- made painfully visible by a long, bloody, and futile war in the Gulf -- left it "unfit to engage an authentic military opponent."
While the military was no longer well-suited to fight and win wars, its subtle integration into every element of domestic life made it perfectly suited to carry out a coup:
"Eventually, people became acclimated to seeing uniformed military personnel patrolling their neighborhood. Now troops are an adjunct to almost all police forces in the country. In many of the areas where much of our burgeoning population of elderly Americans live — [military dictator] Brutus calls them 'National Security Zones' — the military is often the only law enforcement agency. Consequently, the military was ideally positioned in thousands of communities to support the coup."
During Egypt's long "state of emergency," its army managed to lose two wars abroad, while fine-tuning its skills as an instrument of domestic suppression. Granted, it has announced that it will not fire on Egyptian citizens, which is always a welcome development. But why should the Egyptian Army fire on protesters, given that the citizen uprising is helping to entrench military rule, rather than end it?
With our own economy unraveling and our political class becoming shamelessly predatory and unbearably impudent, it's not difficult to imagine a similar scenario playing out in America, with Tea Party Republicans -- for whom the military (which in our system includes our own "torture-prone" police) is sacrosanct -- eagerly welcoming a military coup as "liberation" from Big Government. Perhaps Field Marshal Stanley McChrystal -- formerly military proconsul in Afghanistan, most recently seen flogging Soviet-style "national service" in the pages of Newsweek -- could be tapped to play the role of America's Omar Suleiman.
William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.
Copyright © 2011 William Norman Grigg