As an American civilian I have never really had to think about the distinction between the police and the military. I just assumed that it was cut and dry: the police are the ones on the street, the army is overseas, and the National Guard makes an occasional appearance in the midst of a crisis. In general, it has always seemed unimportant which security force is protecting my interests. This perception was completely shattered when I witnessed the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution.
Friday the 28th:
Police brutality was on full display as the riot police, who had been stationed around the city, came into action. My roommate and I were standing outside one of the largest Mosques in Alexandria as Friday prayers came to an end, and the planned protest began. Within seconds of the prayer finishing, the riot police launched tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, and people were running back with blood running down their faces. The beatings were no doubt a result of the notoriously ruthless plainclothes police force, which was racing around in vans trying to keep up with protests.
As events unfolded we ran through the streets trying to avoid getting stuck between protesters and the police. We eventually found refuge in a café where we spent the rest of the day watching protestors march by, listening to the sounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, venturing out as we became bolder. What struck me most was that the police were fighting their fellow countrymen, and probably classmates.
I saw a kid who couldn’t have been more than fifteen coming back from the front lines unable to walk because he had gotten struck in the head. Someone near us was actually killed during the clashes. More routinely, I was approached by protesters seeking water to wash away tear gas, and witnessed protesters and police hurl rocks or tear gas canisters at one another all afternoon.
Despite their lack of weaponry or protective gear, by the end of the day the protesters were coming back carrying the boots, shields and helmets of the policemen as trophies, while also managing to burn all of the police stations, government buildings, and police vehicles. The protestors had essentially kicked the police out of Alexandria.
At about seven that night, we got word that the army was going to be moving in. Everyone told us not to worry because “the army is with the people,” but needless to say, we were skeptical.
Saturday the 29th:
Saturday had a much different feel to it. We woke up to find that Egyptians were returning to ordinary life. In the absence of police and other government workers, ordinary citizens were directing traffic, sweeping the streets, and performing other necessary duties. This sense of community and unity would be a common theme for the entire revolution.
A little before noon, a fellow American student and I went to see protests in downtown Alexandria, not entirely sure what to expect. It turned out to be one of the most impressive sights I’ve seen in my life. There were thousands and thousands of people marching and chanting “The youth, we want, the fall-of-the-regime!” and the army was doing nothing to stop them.
The protesters were welcoming the army with open arms: shaking their hands, giving them water, and even climbing up on the tanks to lead the protests. Being a sucker for mob mentality, I even offered my bottle of water to a thirsty looking soldier manning a tank. As the people became confident in the army’s support, the chants turned into “The people, the army, all of us together!” We left the protesters about two hours later, as they were filing into the same mosque I was outside of the day before. They then proceeded to pray peacefully, without police supervision.
The difference that twenty-four hours made, during which time the military took over for the police, cannot be understated. As the revolution continued the jokes started circulating that “If you find the police, arrest them,” and that “without government, there is safety.”
Why the difference?:
After these two very different days, I was left with a couple of questions: why is there such a difference between the police and the military? And, what does that mean for the future?
From an economic standpoint, the lower levels of both the police and the military are underpaid, but the military comes with an air of honor that the police do not command. Egypt requires mandatory military service, which means that the army was made of conscripts whereas the police consist of specially “trained” officers who were considered loyal to the Mubarak regime. It also means that people are better able to identify with the military as their fathers, brothers, uncles, etc. Another key difference is that the police force includes the “National Security Forces”, aka the plainclothes police force. This group, along with the Central Security Forces, played a prominent role in the violent suppression of protestors, and has been widely linked to torture throughout the Mubrak, Sadat, and Nasser regimes.
However, the most important difference between the two government apparatuses is from whom they take their orders. Mubarak controlled the police, and not surprisingly, the man Mubarak named as VP (Omar Suleiman) had strong ties to the police intelligence gathering and torture communities. Field Marshal Tentawi and the supreme military council controlled the army, although there were concerns about Tentawi’s personal friendship with Mubarak.
As I learned these things, I became more confident in the military’s ability to rule, but was ultimately left with a vague, but accurate, summary of the military’s role. As my Egyptian friend put it, the army was there to “protect the people”, which could mean supporting the regime if they felt it would bring stability, or siding with the protestors. Despite the very complicated situation, Egyptians seemed one hundred percent positive that the soldiers would not open fire on them, and were cautiously optimistic that the military would eventually side with the people. They were right on both accounts.
This distinction between the police and the military is common throughout the Arab world, with varying degrees of regime loyalty from the military. This means that the army will likely play a crucial role if protests in Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain, and Yemen move into more revolutionary stages. The Syrian military is another force that is worth keeping an eye on because they are considered potentially violent and took part in the 1982 Hama massacre in which at least 10,000 were killed.
As an American, it is not likely that I will have to choose between police or military protection anytime soon, but it does raise the question of what might happen domestically in a situation similar to the Egyptian revolution. Imagine a quarter of American citizens rising up against their government; who would side with whom?
Written by Tik Root, a junior at Middlebury College who had been studying abroad in Alexandria since September.