Among the US diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks are a series of revealing missives addressed to the State Department from the US embassy in Cairo. Here, Ludovic Lamant presents five that offer an insight into the events now transforming Egypt, and Washington's reaction to the crisis. They include a portrait of Hosni Mubarak, an appraisal of the state of the Egyptian army, a report on the widespread use of torture by police, the rise of the opposition movement and how the web became a crucial tool for countering censorship.
1. Hosni Mubarak, lamenting ‘US efforts to reform Islamic world'
KEY QUOTE: ‘EGIS Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.'
Shortly before President Hosni Mubarak was due to visit the United States in 2009, the US embassy in Cairo sent a cable that dressing a personal and political portrait of the Egyptian leader, then aged 81. Dated May 19th and titled ‘Scenesetter: President Mubarak's visit to Washington', it begins by detailing his "reasonable health" and his character unimpressed "by personal flattery" and "idealistic goals".
"During his 28 year tenure, he survived at least three assassination attempts, maintained peace with Israel, weathered two wars in Iraq and post-2003 regional instability, intermittent economic downturns, and a manageable but chronic internal terrorist threat," the cable reads. "He is a tried and true realist, innately cautious and conservative, and has little time for idealistic goals."
Further down, the cable deals with Mubarak's reaction to pressure for the introduction of democratic reforms: "No issue demonstrates Mubarak's worldview more than his reaction to demands that he open Egypt to genuine political competition and loosen the pervasive control of the security services. Certainly the public "name and shame" approach in recent years strengthened his determination not to accommodate our views. However, even though he will be more willing to consider ideas and steps he might take pursuant to a less public dialogue, his basic understanding of his country and the region predisposes him toward extreme caution. We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world. He can harken back to the Shah of Iran: the U.S. encouraged him to accept reforms, only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists. Wherever he has seen these U.S. efforts, he can point to the chaos and loss of stability that ensued."
Mubarak has no single confidante or advisor who can truly speak for him, and he has prevented any of his main advisors from operating outside their strictly circumscribed spheres of power. Defense Minister Tantawi keeps the Armed Forces appearing reasonably sharp and the officers satisfied with their perks and privileges, and Mubarak does not appear concerned that these forces are not well prepared to face 21st century external threats. EGIS Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics."
2. Police torture and brutality, 'routine and pervasive'
KEY QUOTE: ‘He asserted that most officers think solving crimes justifies brutal interrogation methods, and that some policemen believe that Islamic law sanctions torture.'
On January 29th 2009, a cable from the US embassy in Cairo focused on the problems of "endemic" police brutality and use of torture. It begins: "Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat."
Further down it provides anecdotal information about common police abuses: "NGO and academic contacts from across the political spectrum report witnessing police brutality as part of their daily lives[...]A contact from an international NGO described witnessing police beat the doorman of an upscale Cairo apartment building into disclosing the apartment number of a suspect. Another contact at a human rights NGO told us that her friends do not report thefts from their apartments because they do not want to subject "all the doormen" in the vicinity to police beatings. She told us that the police's use of force has pervaded Egyptian culture to the extent that one popular television soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beats up suspects to collect evidence."
"[...]Contacts attribute police brutality to poor training, understaffing and official sanction. Human rights lawyer XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX speculated that officers routinely resort to brutality because of pressure from their superiors to solve crimes. He asserted that most officers think solving crimes justifies brutal interrogation methods, and that some policemen believe that Islamic law sanctions torture."
3. The Egyptian army, ‘disgruntled' officers and perk-fed generals
KEY QUOTE: ‘In a messier succession scenario it becomes more difficult to predict the military's actions.'
Beginning in 2008, several US cables attempt to evaluate the strength of the Egyptian army. The most interesting of these is dated September 23rd 2008, and titled ‘Academics see the military in decline, but retaining strong influence.' It relays the informed opinions of ranking academics about the military, and begins: "Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society's elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates."
The unhappiness of the mid-level officer corps at, among other things, defence minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is dealt with again further down the cable: "The AUC professor described the mid-level officer corps as generally disgruntled, and said that one can hear mid-level officers at MOD clubs around Cairo openly expressing disdain for Tantawi. These officers refer to Tantawi as "Mubarak's poodle," he said, and complain that "this incompetent Defense Minister" who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is "running the military into the ground.""
Referring to Mubarak's son Gamal, groomed to succeed his father, the cable continues: "One professor opined that since 2003, the regime has tried to strengthen the economic elite close to Gamal at the expense of the military in an effort to weaken potential military opposition to Gamal's path to the presidency."
It details the hold of the armed forces over key areas of the economy, through a network of military-owned companies run by army veterans: "Contacts told us that military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries." The cable's authors then add: "(Comment: We see the military's role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets. End comment.)".
The cable concludes on a note relevant to current events: "We agree with the analysis that senior military officers would support Gamal if Mubarak resigned and installed him in the presidency, as it is difficult to imagine opposition from these officers who depend on the president and defense minister for their jobs and material perks. In a messier succession scenario, however, it becomes more difficult to predict the military's actions. While mid-level officers do not necessarily share their superiors' fealty to the regime, the military's built-in firewalls and communication breaks make it unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader."
KEY QUOTE: 'Most opposition parties and independent NGOs work toward achieving tangible, incremental reform within the current political context, even if they may be pessimistic about their chances of success.'
In April 2008, in the town of El-Mahalla El Kubra in the Nile Delta region of northern Egypt, a strike and demonstrations held by textile workers protesting against factory conditions and spiraling prices led to violent clashes with security forces, and several deaths were reported. There were unusual scenes of rebellion, including the toppling of a giant billboard bearing a portrait of Hosni Mubarak and widespread chanting against his regime. A US diplomatic cable shortly afterwards - as yet unposted by the Wikileaks site but recently quoted from in a report by French daily Le Monde - reported a "significant" event in which a "new opposition force" with no apparent links to the Muslim Brotherhood had appeared. The social movement in El-Mahalla El Kubra inspired the online Facebook ‘April 6th Movement', named after the date of the textile workers' strike, and which became a ‘virtual' rallying point for tens of thousands of Egyptian opponents calling for the creation of a democratic society.
In a US Cairo embassy cable dated December 30th 2008, Washington's support for the movement is made clear. It followed the officially-organised visit to the US earlier that month of one of the April 6th Movement activists, and begins: "On December 23, April 6 activist XXXXXXXXXXXX expressed satisfaction with his participation in the December 3-5 "Alliance of Youth Movements Summit," and with his subsequent meetings with USG officials, on Capitol Hill, and with think tanks. He described how State Security (SSIS) detained him at the Cairo airport upon his return and confiscated his notes for his summit presentation calling for democratic change in Egypt, and his schedule for his Congressional meetings."
Referring to the Egyptian government as GOE and the US administration as USG, it refers to the activist's demands for blunt US pressure to be exerted on the Cairo regime: "XXXXXXXXXXXX described how he tried to convince his Washington interlocutors that the USG should pressure the GOE to implement significant reforms by threatening to reveal information about GOE officials' alleged "illegal" off-shore bank accounts. He hoped that the U.S. and the international community would freeze these bank accounts, like the accounts of Zimbabwean President Mugabe's confidantes."
Offering a revealing insight into the long build-up to the events that have now finally erupted in Egypt, the cable notes: "According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, the opposition is interested in receiving support from the army and the police for a transitional government prior to the 2011 elections. XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted that this plan is so sensitive it cannot be written down. (Comment: We have no information to corroborate that these parties and movements have agreed to the unrealistic plan XXXXXXXXXXXX has outlined. Per ref C, XXXXXXXXXXXX previously told us that this plan was publicly available on the internet. End comment.)"
The report concludes: "XXXXXXXXXXXX offered no roadmap of concrete steps toward April 6's highly unrealistic goal of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2011 presidential elections. Most opposition parties and independent NGOs work toward achieving tangible, incremental reform within the current political context, even if they may be pessimistic about their chances of success. XXXXXXXXXXXX's wholesale rejection of such an approach places him outside this mainstream of opposition politicians and activists."
5. The power of Egyptian ‘cyber-activism'
Key quote: 'Blogs have spread throughout the population to become vehicles for a wide range of activists, students, journalists and ordinary citizens to express their views on almost any issue they choose.'
A US Cairo embassy cable dated March 30th 2009 relays the rising influence of opposition expression on the internet , notably through social networks and blogs. "Egypt's bloggers are playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse, and self-expression," it begins.
"[...]Egypt has an estimated 160,000 bloggers who write in Arabic, and sometimes in English, about a wide variety of topics, from social life to politics to literature. One can view posts ranging from videos of alleged police brutality (ref B), to comments about the GOE's foreign policy, to complaints about separate lines for men and women in government offices distributing drivers' licenses. One NGO contact estimated for us that a solid majority of bloggers are between 20 and 35 years old, and that about 30 percent of blogs focus on politics. Blogs have spread throughout the population to become vehicles for a wide range of activists, students, journalists and ordinary citizens to express their views on almost any issue they choose. As such, the blogs have significantly broadened the range of topics that Egyptians are able to discuss publicly."
The cable says the Egyptian government had allowed "wide latitude" to the contents of blogs, as long as they did not attack Mubarak or Islam. However it notes: "The GOE has also arrested activists, such as XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX, who have used blogging to organize and support protests (refs A and C). Activists are increasingly writing blogs to advance their political aims. Contacts accurately point out that bloggers have ceased to function as a cohesive activist movement. It is noteworthy that bloggers did not play a significant role in the most recent example of mass cyber-activism - the April 6, 2008 strike orchestrated through Facebook."
The cable ends with examples of the audacity and consequences of the blogs: "XXXXXXXXXXXX stressed the importance of bloggers' concern with torture and press freedom. At a public lecture XXXXXXXXXXXX human rights lawyer XXXXXXXXXXXX lauded XXXXXXXXXXXX for posting an alleged police sodomy video a few days earlier (ref B), and for breaking the El-Kebir police brutality case. In November 2007, a court sentenced two police officers to three years in prison for assaulting and sodomizing bus driver Imad El-Kebir. The case gained notoriety after XXXXXXXXXXXX a cell phone video recording of the attack."
Sans surprise, les diplomates américains constatent, en mars 2009, que «des blogueurs égyptiens jouent un rôle de plus en plus important dans l'élargissement des contours du débat politique et social, et de la libre expression». Ils estiment qu'environ 30% des 160.000 blogueurs égyptiens alors recensés, la grande majorité écrivant en arabe, âgés de 20 à 35 ans, évoquent des questions directement politiques.