Day: January 28, 2011

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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Police riot in Cairo, refuse to do so in Alexandria

More later today.  In the meanwhile, a bit of video that tells what you really need to know: it’s about the regime.

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