But you don’t last for 30 years as dictator unless you acquire some survival skills along the way. Hosni Mubarak has put those skills to good use over the last couple of days, and by doing so, has firmed up a tenuous hold on power. Talk of his imminent demise has ceased except in the most idealistic and optimistic circles of the Egyptian revolt.
In short, Mubarak may have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and guaranteed his survival until his announced retirement in September. And he did it by granting the most niggardly of concessions to the opposition, and without compromising the all-important position of the military in the Egyptian government and society.
The New York Times is reporting that the administration is “negotiating” with elements of the Egyptian government to ease Mubarak’s leaving. This would be great news if the Egyptians cared a whit what we or any other Western nation thought:
They cautioned that the outcome depended on several factors, not least Egypt’s own constitutional protocols and the mood of the protesters on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities.
Some officials said there was not yet any indication that either Mr. Suleiman or the Egyptian military was willing to abandon Mr. Mubarak.
Even as the Obama administration is coalescing around a Mubarak-must-go-now posture in private conversations with Egyptian officials, Mr. Mubarak himself remains determined to stay until the election in September, American and Egyptian officials said. His backers forcibly pushed back on Thursday against what they viewed as American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.
“What they’re asking cannot be done,” one senior Egyptian official said, citing clauses in the Egyptian Constitution that bar the vice president from assuming power. Under the Constitution, the speaker of Parliament would succeed the president. “That’s my technical answer,” the official added. “My political answer is they should mind their own business.”
Talks between Secretary Gates and the Egyptian military aren’t even concerned with a handover of power. Gates wants to make sure the Egyptian army doesn’t start a slaughter in Tahrir Square. Given the current efforts by the government to silence, intimidate, arrest, and coerce foreign and domestic media, anything is possible, including the kind of crackdown that probably would have saved the Shah in 1979 and did save the Chinese Communist government in 1989.
Mubarak’s rent-a-thug gambit has worked. The goons he sent into the streets on Wednesday to attack the opposition frightened ordinary Egyptians who might welcome a more democratic society but are opposed to the violence and bloodshed that exploded across their TV screens. Mubarak’s announcement the previous evening that he would not seek re-election placated many Egyptians who now wonder why the president has to leave immediately. In this context, the demands of the protesters seem petulant, rather than revolutionary.
The key, as it always has been, is the military. As Egypt slowly slipped into anarchy, the army was strangely quiescent – not moving to break up the demonstrations but not making much effort to stop the looting and pillaging by gangs either.
Then, when Mubarak’s goons went into the streets on Wednesday, they finally took a stand, coming down on the side of the pro-Mubarak forces. They didn’t take an active role in the battle for Tahrir Square but they proved invaluable allies to the street bullies. The army allowed their vehicles to be used as shelter against the rock-throwing anti-Mubarak demonstrators, while also sealing off most of the exits from the Square, forcing confrontations between the two factions. The violent imagery did the cause of the anti-Mubarak demonstrators no good. The momentum of the protest seemed to ebb as fewer demonstrators had the physical courage to stand up to the state-sponsored violence being orchestrated by the government.
Mubarak’s concessions to the opposition were not designed to satisfy them, but rather to satisfy the vast majority of Egyptians who want change but not bloody revolution. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad ElBaradei spurned Mubarak’s offers of dialogue is immaterial. The Western press has made far more of ElBaradei’s influence than is recognized by the average Egyptian. And while no one is sure of the Brotherhood’s strength on the street, there is no argument that a majority of Egyptians are opposed to their fundamentalist view of religion and political society. In other words, their refusal to negotiate with Mubarak is not an important gesture.
Other opposition groups may participate in talks.Haaretz reports that “some opposition groups had agreed to [Prime Minister] Shafiq’s invitation, including the liberal, nationalist Wafd party, which is a legal party.” If true, Mubarak would have successfully split the opposition and strengthened his position.
With his abandonment of the plan to elevate his son Gamal to the presidency and the ascension of General Omar Suleiman to the position of vice president and putative successor, Mubarak cleverly removed one of the causes of opposition to his rule; the “inheritance of power” issue with his son. It has never been confirmed, but Gamal may have fled to London in the first hours of the revolt on January 26th. Suleiman’s elevation almost certainly took the younger Mubarak out of play where the September elections are concerned.
Some analysts, including the Naval Post Graduate School’s Robert Springborg, see the abandonment of Gamal as evidence that the military, long a power behind the throne in Egypt, is taking a more active role in political affairs. Writing in Foreign Policy, Springborg believes the Egyptian military high command “under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system,” which is one reason why Gamal has either gone into hiding or exile. Either way, word that Gamal has resigned his membership in the National Democratic Party would indicate that his budding political career has ended.
The advantage of Mubarak’s rent-a-thug gambit is two fold; it keeps the military’s hands clean in any bloody crackdown while giving the regime an excuse to break up the protests in order to restore “peace.” It’s a nice trick; foment the violence and then get credit for restoring order.
The army can now safely move between the pro- and anti-Mubarak groups and be seen as Egypt’s protectors rather than as the instrument of state control that they truly are. Washington, London, Paris, and the rest can jawbone all they want about “democracy” but restoring order in the streets of Cairo is now the number-one priority. Businesses, including banks and food shops, have been closed for more than a week. Civil order must be restored or people will start rioting for food rather than freedom.
All this strengthens Mubarak and his hold on power. Unless there is a stunning turn of events, it is hard to see how he can be forced out now. He has cemented the loyalty of the army by choosing Suleiman as his successor while tossing out the technocrats in government ministries who never served in the military and were bringing western-style capitalist methods to the Egyptian economy. He has not given in to the Brotherhood and their demands made by the fop ElBaradei. And while protesters are still in the streets, and may be there for a few more days, the bulk of the Egyptian people appear ready to return to normalcy.
It also appears that Mubarak has blunted any move toward real reform. When the government does negotiate with the opposition, it won’t be with ElBaradei or the Brotherhood. Those parties the government deigns to talk to will settle for scraps thrown to them by the army. Thus, any reforms will be window dressing rather than substantive change.
It is tempting to wonder if President Obama had done something differently that the outcome of the January 25 revolution in Egypt would have been different. Frankly, it’s hard to see how anything America could have done would have changed the conclusion. The clash of idealism and realism will always bring about unsatisfactory results, even if our actions or words could have had a material impact on the final outcome. We were torn between rooting for the protesters and recognizing the vital need for stability in the region. Our confusing, halting rhetoric and actions reflected that reality and Mubarak took advantage.
Mubarak’s recovery has been as remarkable as it has been unexpected. We will see what events bring over the next few days but, whatever happens, there is a good chance that the president will be able to weather the storm and serve out his remaining term.
The cartoon by Riber Hansson, Sweden, is licensed to run on TMV. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.