Month: January 2011

Made in Egypt is best

This is about as good as it gets in the “statements from the army” category:

The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.

But beware those like Les Gelb who see the army as a defense against the Muslim Brotherhood.  What about freedom of expression for everybody does Les not believe in?  Having been thoroughly discredited by advocating partition of Iraq, is he determined now to embarrass himself by advocating a military takeover in Egypt?

There is of course a lot to worry about when it comes to the transition to democracy in Egypt.  It doesn’t stop with the Muslim Brotherhood, which may turn out to be one of the more moderate political forces at work.  Every loon West of Islamabad will be heading soon for the pyramids to sell his (yes, most of the loons are male) wares.  Egypt needs a carefully guided transition that respects its own traditions (including the prestige and popularity of the army) and undoes the constitutional straitjacket that Mubarak invented for his own purposes.

Who better to do this than the Egyptians themselves?  Its Nobel Prize winners and youth are converging in Cairo for the denouement, which could be peaceful if the army is determined to live up to its words.

What is needed now is for someone to read Hosni Mubarak his rights and hustle him onto a plane for Saudi Arabia.  That honor may have fallen to former Ambassador Frank Wisner, in Cairo on behalf of the State Department to help chart a way forward.  But it would be much better if no American is seen as ending the regime.  President Obama has been clear enough about what he wants to see happen.  Tomorrow’s demonstration, if peaceful and even half as big as a million, should get the message through to anyone who is listening.

The trouble is President Mubarak is not listening and may try to stick it out with daily meaningless concessions.  The great peril, to both Mubarak and Egypt, is that he will hang on too long, increasing the risk of serious violence and decreasing the likelihood of a democratic outcome.

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Rope-a-dope it is, for this round

This morning President Mubarak is playing rope-a-dope, letting the protesters tire themselves out while he offers a vice president, reform, political dialogue, a new cabinet, food and other subsidies, promises of jobs and 10% discount coupons. The big crackdown may not come as soon as I had thought–he might wait a few days, making sure the army is in all the right places and hoping the crowds thin as people start to worry more about protecting their property in the absence of the police, who are playing hide and seek (or maybe cops become robbers).  He could then use the discovery of weapons (or maybe al Qaeda?) among those who remain as an excuse for reestablishing law and order.

Meanwhile, former IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei has emerged as the leading figure among the demonstrators.  That may be an American illusion caused by his appearance Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program calling for Mubarak’s resignation rather than real enthusiasm among the demonstrators, who seem to regard him more as a bridging figure for a transitional arrangement.  He, Ayman Nour and other luminaries of the opposition are said to have formed a 10-person (let’s hope there are some women included) “People’s Popular Parliament” (sounds good!) to manage the crisis, including security and negotiations with the army.  El Baradei is hardly your usual Jacobin, but he has a lot of experience handling delicate situations, joined the demonstrations (better late than never) and could well help to bring about a relatively nonviolent end to the regime.

Washington hasn’t quite pulled hard on the rug beneath Mubarak’s feet, but talking about transition rather than reform and thinking about blocking aid has its implications.

My twitter feed tells me the million Egyptian march is scheduled for Tuesday, so maybe we’ll all have to hold our breath until then.

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He isn’t finished yet

Tonight, which has already begun in Cairo, and tomorrow will be a pivotal moment in Egypt’s history.  Yesterday saw withdrawal of the police from population centers, to defensive (and very aggressively defended) positions around Interior Ministry and other regime pillars.  The Army deployed with smiles and even protesters’ cheers, but did little or nothing to stop either protests or lawlessness, which some citizens tried to contain.  Government agents did at least some of the looting and tire burning, in an apparent effort to give the regime an excuse to restore law and order.

That is likely what it will try to do, using as little force as possible in front of TV cameras.  Al Jazeera has been closed down for the occasion.  The demonstrators will need to show more nonviolent discipline than they have in recent days if they are to avoid a vicious crackdown supported by at least a large part of the population.  Keeping the smiles on those soldiers’ faces is the trick that will bring down Mubarak, if he is to be brought down.

He is definitely not finished yet, despite the blogotwittersphere’s triumphant refrains, which are more wishful thinking than careful analysis.  There is little sign that Mubarak has yet lost the crucial support of the police and army.  His effort to forecast the election lights for his son is finished, and I have my doubts that yesterday’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president will be the final word on succession.  But there are many other people who can step in to save the day for the regime’s privileged few.

The path to democracy in Egypt is particularly fraught because it will require constitutional revision, something some the bloggers are beginning to fathom.  Under the current constitution, a new president would have to pass muster in the current parliament, which is overwhelmingly under the control of Mubarak and his political party.  Revising the constitution will be a lengthy process requiring–if democracy is to be the result–someone at the helm who will steer convincingly in the right direction.  It is hard to picture that person emerging from the current parliament, which was elected in unfree and unfair elections last fall.  It is full of Mubarak cronies.

Of course there are also extra-constitutional paths out of the current situation.  An army seizure of power would not be outside Egyptian tradition, and if the disorder get worse a large part of the middle class might even welcome it.  Even an army coup could lead in a democratic direction.  Tunisia is at least in part embarked on an army-pushed forced march that seems to be headed towards competitive elections.  Egypt might follow.

The difficult question is how much of the old regime needs to be dismantled to allow a new one to emerge relatively peacefully and easily.  There is no universally applicable answer to that question–the demonstrators will decide, by either continuing their efforts or giving them up when they see credible moves in the direction they want.  Egyptians wouldn’t be the first to get the answer wrong–remember the French Revolution?

So far though the protesters have clearly embodied the will of the people to take control and steer their country in directions more beneficial to larger numbers than has been the case in the last several decades.  Mubarak is making a mistake not to listen to their voice, but his too is a mistake made often.  Even if he doesn’t step down, the days of his regime are numbered, if only by his own longevity.  What comes next will likely be profoundly different from what it might have been had these demonstrations not allowed Egyptians to taste liberation.  Whatever happens in the short term, the long term belongs to the people.

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Even pharaoh knew when to let people go

While the U.S. may be trying to engineer a smooth transition, my guess is that Mubarak has something else in mind.  His devotion to order was apparent in last night’s speech. He regards himself as essential to order.  The appointment of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president seems far off the mark if the objective is reform. It is more likely a precursor of crackdown, at which he is experienced and successful, than a smooth transition. Ditto with the appointment of the Aviation Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, as prime minister. Unless there is a negotiated solution, the regime will be tempted to try, likely tonight and if not tomorrow, the kind of brutal dispersal of demonstrators that has worked in the past.

Will it work this time?  I doubt it.  Crowds in Cairo today stayed on good terms with at least some of the soldiers, many of whom are presumably conscripts and therefore less subject to command and control than the professionals, while the Interior Ministry seems to be a focal point of police violence and the main TV station is heavily guarded.  The objective of the demonstrators has become increasingly into focus:  they want Mubarak out.  If the mid-ranking army officers are smart–and there is every reason to believe they are–they will be wondering whether they really want to crack skulls to save Mubarak, who in any event is starting to look like someone packing his bags. BBC is reporting that his two sons are already in London.

It is of course possible that Egypt will suffer a period of disorder, with or without Mubarak in place, providing opportunities for extremists to push the country in directions inimical to U.S., and most Egyptians’, interests. This would not be pretty and could veer in very dangerous directions.

But it is also possible that the constitution, which calls for new elections within 60 days of the president stepping down, will be respected (Article 84):

In case of the vacancy of the Presidential Office or the permanent disability of the President of the Republic, the President of the People’s Assembly shall temporarily assume the Presidency; and, if at that time, the People’s Assembly is dissolved, the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court shall take over the Presidency, however, on condition that neither one shall nominate himself for the Presidency. The People’s Assembly shall then proclaim the vacancy of the office of President. The President of the Republic shall be chosen within a maximum period of sixty days from the day of the vacancy of the Presidential Office.

This choice of the president is presumably done within the People’s Assembly, as provided for in Article 76.

It is hard to picture the demonstrators tolerating the choice of a new president by a parliament elected last fall in blatantly unfree and unfair elections, though I suppose they might accept if it is clear that the choice will be a transitional one, i.e. not Omar Suleiman or some other Mubarak appointee (former IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei for example).  But it is going to be hard to satisfy anyone seriously interested in democracy in Egypt within the current constitutional framework, which is tailored to suit the likes of Hosni Mubarak.  Writing a new constitution will not be an easy, or quick, process.

In the meanwhile, lifting of the emergency law and formation of a government free of Mubarak’s military buddies would be the clearest signals that whoever is in charge is serious about moving ahead with democratic reform.  We are not there yet, and we may never get there–if the crackdown is successful, something like the previous system might be restored, with or without Mubarak as president.

An NPR correspondent told what I would regard as a good Egyptian joke this morning.  Informed by a speechwriter that his farewell address to the people was ready, Mubarak asks “why? are they going someplace?”  Even pharaoh knew when to let the people go.  In the modern version, the pharaoh leaves.

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Two presidents try to contain the damage

First an uninspired Mubarak, who promises ill-defined reforms and fires the government but sees no problems in the regime and only chaos in the demonstrations (someone sell him a teleprompter please!):

Then an almost animated Obama, who favors universal human rights, peaceful demonstrations and concrete reforms (he didn’t use a teleprompter either, but he is better at it!):

Nothing Mubarak said suggested to me that he understood what real reform meant, and quite a bit of it suggested a willingness to crack down. Obama did not sound as if he wanted to put up with another day like today, when the Egyptian security forces were clearly unleashed and encouraged to trash the demonstrators.

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Mubarak’s choice: step down or crack down

We’ll have to wait for more than one Ph.D. thesis before we understand all that has happened today in Egypt, but it seems clear that the police attacked quickly as worshipers left the mosques in Cairo and continued to do battle for most of the rest of the day. Demonstrators are reported to have welcomed the army this evening.

This is not surprising, and it may even be encouraging.  If the demonstrators can convince the army to abandon the regime, we could see a lot of fast reform in Egypt. That is more or less the current situation in Tunisia–the army abandoned Ben Ali and is now saying that it will protect the reform process (pray that it does).  The difference is that Egypt’s army has more privilege left to defend–it will not be easy to get them to abandon that, even if they abandon Mubarak. 

In Alexandria, the demonstrators and police seem to have made their peace much earlier in the day, with at least some police refusing orders to use tear gas and to attack the protesters. This too is encouraging.  Violence against the security forces plays into an autocrat’s hand, by enabling the use of force and depriving the demonstrators of at least some of their popular support.

Whatever the differences, one thing is clear everywhere:  it’s about the regime.  If Mubarak ever hoped to retire peacefully like Diocletian to his villa in Split, he seems to have missed the opportunity.  Nor will he be able to easily pass the baton to his son, who is the day’s biggest loser.  The Mubaraks have lost their best opportunities to make peace.  The President faces a starker choice than yesterday:  step down or crack down.

My guess is he will try crack down first.  It has worked for him in the past.  Washington, which as The Guardian says is wobbling on a tightrope, needs to get ready for one of the biggest foreign policy choices of our time:  back Mubarak or go for change.

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