In the courtyard of a Cairo mortuary, the Arab springtime seemed very distant

Jeremy Bowen reports from Egypt.

The morning after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt in February 2011, millions of people in this fractious, overheated, argumentative nation were seized by a rare sense of unity. Everything was going to change for the better. To be alive in that dawn was blissful.
 
In Tahrir Square, some of the tens of thousands who had occupied it for 18 days set to with brushes and buckets to clean it up. A shingle beach of rocks and broken paving slabs that had been hurled at the police and at supporters of Mubarak was shovelled up and carted away. Big granite cobblestones were salvaged and returned to their original positions near the Egyptian Museum. Middleaged, middle-class men who looked as if they had never touched a brush in their lives puffed and panted importantly as they filled dustbin bags. Some western liberals fooled themselves that Egypt might transform itself into an oriental version of a European democracy. Egyptians were caught up in the euphoria, too. It was a time of schemes and dreams.
 

A shoddy business, death

 
As I stood this month in the courtyard of Cairo’s central mortuary, that Arab springtime seemed very distant. So many people have been killed here in the past weeks and so many bodies have not yet been claimed or identified that the mortuary is overflowing.
 
Four refrigerated lorries have been parked outside the morgue for the bodies that cannot be accommodated inside. The corpses are crammed into the back of the trucks. Thick clouds of flies buzz around them. Clumps of incense sticks, disinfectant and some Febrezelike sprays fight a losing battle against the stench of rotting bodies.
 
The trucks do not stay very cold, because men are constantly climbing in and out of them, gagging on the smell, unwrapping shrouds and shining torches on to the remains of the faces to try to find missing friends and relatives. Some families sit exhausted around the empty coffins they have brought, wondering if they will ever be able to find and bury their dead. The courtyard is squalid, covered in litter and reeking of death and desperation.
 
When they find the body, the nightmare does not end. Egyptian law demands that a death certificate be issued before a funeral can take place. I have heard complaints that families are being told they can get a death certificate only if they accept the cause of death mandated by the official behind the wire-mesh window at the morgue, even if it is not correct.
 
Many think there is a conspiracy to disguise the way that demonstrators have died. One man at the mortuary waved a certificate, a flimsy piece of paper torn out of a book of preprinted forms, a receipt for a life, and yelled that the cause of death was asphyxia, even though the body was burned. He claimed they were told to take what they were given or the corpse would be dumped in the desert.
 

Just like old times

 
Many Egyptians feel that the governing style of the dictator is coming back. It feels like that for a reporter on the streets. The official media are full of incitement against what they claim are the biased international media, blaming us for Egypt’s problems. It’s like old times.
 
The Cairo mortuary stands opposite the Old War Horse Memorial Hospital, a place set up in the 1930s by an English lady who was horrified to see cavalry horses being used and abused as beasts of burden. Just beyond this small memory of a very different Cairo, a group of local men was loitering, looking for suspicious visitors, especially foreigners with cameras. They had chased away some of my BBC colleagues a few days earlier. We had to film covertly, with a small camera that looked like a mobile phone. It is open season on the messenger here right now.
 

Cheers for leaders

 
Quite a lot of Egyptians are happy that the firmness of the Mubarak days seems to be coming back. They are fed up with the collapse of law and order that followed the 2011 revolution, chaotic streets and a collapsing economy. They hated having the Muslim Brotherhood telling them what to do while the country went, in their view, from bad to worse. I have lost count of the times I’ve been told it was better under Mubarak.
 
Since the armed forces overthrew President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July, the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been quiet. They no longer appear to be an important factor. Before the end of 2011, it was clear that their energy was not being channelled into the kind of political organisation that was their only chance of rivalling the two existing power centres in Egypt – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some liberals have turned into cheerleaders for the military, their attachment to Egypt’s democratic experiment overwhelmed by their relief that the Brotherhood, which they could not beat at the polls, is under attack.
 
It is clear that the military wants to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood, to remove it as a political force from Egypt. The Brotherhood is being driven on by shock and rage that the power it worked towards since its foundation in 1928 has been taken away after only a year. It was disastrously incompetent at government but it is skilled and experienced at operating as a banned organisation. Its enemies celebrate a premature victory at their peril.
 
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. An updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99) 
An Egyptian man walks between lines of bodies wrapped in shrouds at a makeshift morgue in Cairo. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”