The mass revolt against President Hosni Mubarak’s rule has shaken the civilian pillars of his rule: the police force, the ruling party and state media.
In the short term at least, the blows dealt to all three institutions will make it harder for Mubarak’s administration to assert the level of control it exercised just a few weeks ago.
The army now has a decisive say over the country’s fate for the first time in decades.
The police force still appears in disarray nearly two weeks after it largely dissolved in the face of the protests, leaving a vacuum that was filled by looting and vigilantes. The Interior Minister has been sacked and is under investigation, Reuters reports.
The entire leadership of the National Democratic Party (NDP) resigned on Saturday, including politicians who had served Mubarak for decades. With Mubarak due to step down in September at the latest, some wonder whether it will survive at all.
And the credibility of state media, fiercely loyal to Mubarak, is in tatters. Its attempts to ignore or misrepresent the uprising that has paralysed the country appeared surreal to the many viewers with access to satellite channels.
At least two journalists have walked out.
To the protesters in Tahrir Square, the steps against the NDP and change at the top of the Interior Ministry appear no more than tactical moves to absorb popular anger.
But inside the government, the departure of officials who served Mubarak for years marks a radical departure from the past.
In Cairo, many believe the changes show Mubarak’s role has already diminished. The central role the vice president appears to be playing has strengthened that perception.
“There is a general impression that the security forces have disintegrated. The same happened to the NDP,” Mustapha Kamal al-Sayyid, an Egyptian politcal scientist, said.
“With their disintegration they almost left the political scene free for the armed forces to regain the position they had at the beginning of the revolution in 1952,” he said, referring to the year the army overthrew King Farouk in a coup.
SHAPING MUBARAK’S ERA
The Interior Ministry and the NDP have shaped Mubarak’s rule over three decades. The party ensured Mubarak’s control over the parliament and the ministry secured his control of the streets, enforcing notorious emergency laws that have stifled dissent.
Habib al-Adli, sacked as interior minister, had served in his post for 13 years. Safwat el-Sherif, who on Saturday resigned as secretary general of the NDP, along with the rest of its leadership, had been at the heart of government for decades.
Every five years, their two institutions would join forces during parliamentary elections, the police using force to help NDP candidates secure victory in districts where they faced opposition, which mainly came from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The party has been a symbol of cronyism, corruption and election-rigging. The police have been a symbol of brutality. Together, their reputations explain much of the anger that has driven the unprecedented protests against Mubarak.
NDP headquarters have been set ablaze across the country. With Mubarak set to step down by September at the latest, some believe the party could be dissolved altogether.
As for the police, newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman has said they will take a few months to recover from the chaos that ensued in the days after the protests erupted on January 25.
Adli’s departure from the Interior Ministry marks a major shake-up in a government where change has only ever happened at glacial pace for 30 years.
Egyptians want to know why the police abandoned the streets in the early days of the protests. While the riot police were overwhelmed by the demonstrators, many have concluded that the disappearance of other parts of Egypt’s vast police force was part of a conspiracy to cause a breakdown in law and order.
There has been no explanation yet as to why, for example, prison guards allowed an unknown number of inmates to escape.
“WHO TOLD THEM NOT TO COME BACK?”
“A large part of the security forces were destroyed but the bigger part was simply dismissed”, said Safwat Zayyat, a former Egyptian army officer and expert on security affairs. “Large parts are out of control,” he said. “There is great talk of a conspiracy — that this was deliberate,” said Zayyat.
Under Mubarak, the Interior Ministry had grown ever stronger, employing well over 1 million people, including a paramilitary police force. Its stature grew during Egypt’s campaign against militant Islamists in the 1990s.
In a televised interview last week, Suleiman was heavily critical of their performance and said he would find out what had gone wrong. Questioning why they had not redeployed, he asked: “Who told them not to come back?”
He was also critical of what he described as the negative impact big business had had on the Egyptian government, a reference to the ruling party and a group of businessmen who were seen to be steering economic policy since 2004.
Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and one of the figures to quit the party, had led an effort to reform the NDP and boost its popular appeal. His rapid rise through its ranks fuelled speculation that he was set for the presidency.
That assumption unravelled when Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his vice president. Suleiman, like Mubarak, a military general, is widely assumed to enjoy the support of the army.
Though all of Egypt’s presidents have come from the military since it overthrew the king in 1952, the army has had little or no role in domestic affairs since the 1967 Middle East war.
Now, with the pillars of Mubarak’s rule wobbling, it appears to hold the balance of power between the protesters and the administration. So far, it has tried to stay neutral. “Neutrality is an intelligent position,” Zayyat said.
“The army is waiting for the result of the dialogue between what is left of the governing institution and the political organisations and the protest movements.
“If they do not reach an agreement that satisfies the Egyptian street, I think that time is not on anyone’s side,” he added. “The army might act if it feels that matters are deteriorating.”