Ellis Goldberg provides an in-depth analysis of two of Egypt’s core institutions: the security forces and the judiciary. He illustrates how they have inserted themselves into the politics of the transition to secure their interests.

Hosni Mubarak resigned as president on 11 February 2011 in the wake of unexpected and massive demonstrations, strikes and attacks on institutions of public order. The police vanished from the streets and in some places units of the armed forces replaced them; the legislature, under attack following what was widely seen as a fraudulent election several months earlier, was paralysed. Surprisingly, the judiciary, some of whose members had fought a widely publicised battle for independence five years earlier, emerged as an important political force. The armed forces, presumed guarantors of the regime, stepped in to ensure that Mubarak left office. Twice in three years, with significant popular support each time, the military proved to be the ultimate centre of power in the country. And Egypt’s immense administrative bureaucracy continued to function, albeit at a slower and more cautious pace than before.

The lively, contentious and unresolved academic debate about the state, revolution and mass uprisings across centuries and continents will not detain us here. From it we will simply extract two basic ideas. Firstly, the modern state is defined by its institutions: a large bureaucracy through which the executive administers society according to existing legislation; a legislative body responsible for making laws, but neither for implementing regulations nor enforcing procedures; and a court system divided into jurisdictions of fact-finding and review. Secondly, the effectiveness of the state in governing the territory it claims to control rests on a division of labour in the administration of force. The police maintain domestic order, while the army maintains the sovereignty of the state. Almost invariably – and Egypt is no exception – the armed forces train for combat with heavy weaponry, whereas the police train to suppress local and small-scale violations of the law.

Ellis Goldberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has published numerous articles and books on the political economy of twentieth-century Egypt.

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