Following Hosni Mubarak’s speech on Friday, the showdown on Egyptian streets has taken a dangerous turn and the White House may have to share the blame if blood flows more freely in coming days.
Hours before the speech, army soldiers and tanks fanned through Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other locations where protesters are gathered despite a permanent curfew and Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of staff of Egypt’s armed forces, left Washington in a hurry.
In Cairo, a belief is spreading that Enan has White House backing to keep Mubarak in power if possible. This may be untrue. Perhaps President Barack Obama is waiting to see further developments before taking sides against Mubarak. But rumor-based beliefs are not easy to discredit and the results of misunderstandings can be devastating.
So far neither he nor Hilary Clinton have said anything strongly pro-democracy and Obama even praised the Mubarak administration on Thursday. On Friday, Clinton emphasized that Egypt has “long been an important partner.” The only clear message both have sent so far is to stop blocking communication by phone, the Internet and Twitter while calling on both Mubarak and the protesters to avoid violence. This hardly befits protagonists of democratic freedoms.
If delivering homilies is all Obama intends to do for the Egyptian people, he risks losing all freedom-seeking youth in the Arab world for a long time. Mubarak will either stay by shedding blood and spreading fear or he will fall after blood sacrifice by the people. Obama will look awful in either case.
Whatever the White House and the Pentagon told Enan, Mubarak seems to think that mere talk and promises may suffice to keep him in power because the Obama administration does not want him to go. This may be a grave self-serving misunderstanding but could cause much suffering for the protesters.
Everyone in Egypt knows that all power is vested with Mubarak. His ministerial cabinet, government and parliament are rubber stamps. Yet, the only thing he did was to fire his cabinet and promise to announce a new government on Saturday. On all other grievances over which tens of thousands of mainly young people are risking their lives on the street, Mubarak said patronizingly that he is in touch with Egyptians and understands their problems. He quickly eroded that by insisting he is guarantor of the nation’s safety, especially against violent instigators who want to “destabilize” the country.
There is disbelief in Egypt that he still sees the unprecedented anti-government protests as the work of covert forces trying to destroy the nation. Historically, Egyptians are a submissive people who have not rebelled against government in 4,000 years. Their current actions bear witness to their great anger and desperation. Yet the current Pharaoh went on television to underscore how important he is for the people’s protection. The street is asking, “But against whom? Are you protecting Egypt against us?”
This is a dangerous question. Coming hours and days will provide the answer. If the severe curfew does not stop protests, the army, which has replaced police on the streets, will be faced with a stark choice. Do their armored vehicles shoot at the people?
So far, the police used water cannons and tear gas. But soldiers do not carry such weapons and are not practiced in using them. If the army fires live rounds, Obama is the one who will face very severe embarrassment among supporters of democracy worldwide, not Mubarak, a discredited, desperate, aged and ill dictator.
Enan’s soldiers will fire on their civilian brothers only if the army has been assured of White House support or neutrality. Egypt’s army has very close ties to the Pentagon. It conducts exercises with US forces every two years and there is a flow of two-way visits almost each month. It is closer to the Pentagon than the Jordanians, who are the other major Arab ally of the US in the Middle East. (The top ally is, of course, Israel.)
But a miracle could happen. The soldiers might disobey orders to fire on civilians. That is the only hope left to all those around the world who support freedom of expression. A bloodbath, if it happens and however small, would be on Obama’s head for it will prove that the Nobel Peace prize winner prefers to save a military ally than face an unpredictable imperfect democracy in Egypt.