Belfast Telegraph

So the Arab landscape shifts and chaos reigns

The great political awakening in North Africa and the Middle East brings change but some things - torture among them - remain. Patrick Cockburn reports

Egypt is filled with signs of an unfinished revolution. Politics and everyday life are in a state of flux. Even the skylight high in the ceiling of the Cairo Museum, through which thieves entered at the height of the uprising, has not been mended.

The robbers lowered themselves by rope and stole items discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, including a gold military trumpet.

They might have taken more treasures had they not been diverted by the museum gift shop, where they looted cheap, but gaudy, copies of ancient Egyptian artefacts.

The robbers' confusion about what to do is mirrored by that of government and protesters after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

All are conscious that a political earthquake has taken place, but somehow those who have misruled Egypt for decades are mostly still in place.

Mubarak may have gone, but Egypt is now run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, consisting of 18 generals.

Some in Cairo gloomily mutter 'Plus ca change', but the past week has shown how difficult it is for the army to retain political credibility in a newly politicised country unless it meets protesters' demands.

Mubarak was arrested on April 13 with his two sons, Alaa and Gamal. The army council says that prison sentences passed on young protesters will be reconsidered.

So far, the generals have not felt strong enough to behave otherwise, so long as they are pretending there has always been a big divide between Mubarak's corrupt dictatorship and state institutions such as the armed forces.

Of course, the two were indissolubly linked and the slogan 'the army and people are one', shouted by protesters in Tahrir Square, was primarily a plea for soldiers not to shoot.

The generals' convenient fiction about their role is not entirely false. The regimes under threat from the Arab Awakening mostly started off as military dictatorships.

But, by the mid-1970s, military regimes throughout the Arab world had evolved into police states in order to coup-proof themselves.

In Egypt, army officers retained privileges, such as effective legal immunity, but in terms of real power they lost out to the security and intelligence services.

The pattern was the same throughout the Arab world. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was determined that nobody else was going to ride to power on the top of an army tank. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi went a step further when he largely dissolved the Libyan army.

The differing course of the Arab Awakening in Egypt and Libya is significant. In Egypt, the establishment felt it could stay in business if it let the Mubarak regime go. In Libya, the regime and the state could not be divided.

The absence of a professional army in Libya means that the rebels have to rely on long-retired soldiers to train new recruits. Gaddafi may have more trained troops, but not enough of them to take and hold cities such as Ajdabiya and Misrata.

Over the past 20 years, the Arab police states became quasi-monarchies with elderly rulers seeking to hand on power to their sons. Benghazi is littered with the abandoned projects of Gaddafi's sons, such as the palatial, almost completed Regency Hotel.

Gaddafi's regal pretensions did not prevent him insisting on study of his Green Book's radical adages. Not surprisingly, the centre where it was studied - an attractive white crown-like structure - is burnt out.

One Benghazi resident complained: "My cousin had to re-do a whole three-month term of his computer engineering course because he failed the section on the Green Book."

The political landscape is changing in North Africa and the Middle East, both within states and in their relations with the outside world.

In Egypt, any new government is likely to be less close to the US and Israel. In Libya, the opposition is weak militarily, but Gaddafi is likely to go down because of the strength of Nato backing for the rebels.

The strength of the rebels in east Libya is their skill in marrying mass protest to the requirements of the media.

Demonstrations in front of the town hall and elsewhere in Benghazi are much better organised than their military manoeuvres.

But there is something deeply hypocritical about the concern shown by Nato and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf over the fate of Libyan rebels, when they ignore or promote savage repression in Bahrain.

The majority Shia community is being systematically disenfranchised, deprived of jobs, its parties dissolved and its leaders arrested and tortured.

In response, there is hardly a cheep out of the US or Nato, whose leaders are so eager to bring democracy to Libyans.

It is reasonable to regard cynically the humanitarian pretensions of foreign leaders and the reformist zeal of Egyptian generals, but radical change is already with us because tens of millions of previously apathetic people have been politicised - and some of the world's nastiest police states turned out to be more fragile than anyone expected.

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