End of the Road for Mubarak: Update
[The North Africa Journal - By Alessandro Bruno and Arezki Daoud] The Egyptian people are furious and no longer afraid of teargas and bullets. For 30 years, they have endured a ruthless dictatorship that ruled through a combination of oppression and occasional false promise of reform and liberalization. Today, encouraged, by the success of a popular uprising in Tunisia, the Egyptian people have started a sixth consecutive day of protest, refusing to back down despite a massive show of force by the police and security forces
Although fresh signs are emerging that the military could soon take part to the crackdown of the Egyptian people, the army has not participated in the repressive action thus far; the people demonstrated respect and affection for the armed forces, even as tanks arrived on the streets of Cairo. This suggests that the army continues to enjoy respect as an institution. The army retains holds the balance of power and will ultimately decide whether Hosni Mubarak stays on until the next election or whether he is replaced by a caretaker government. Ultimately, there is no question that Mubarak’s days are counted. Before the uprising, when some still speculated over the possibility that president Mubarak’s son, Gamal al-Mubarak, would be named as the National Democratic Party (NDP – the ruling party since Gamal Abdul Nasser’s coup in 1954) candidate to win the presidential election, ignored the primary role of the armed forces and security apparatus in Egyptian society and their objection to Gamal. Therefore, the president and the armed forces were already set on a collision course before the uprising.
The Egyptian army, the most powerful army in the Arab world, saw Gamal as unsuitable and inexperienced. Until the outbreak of the popular protest, speculation over Egypt’s political future revolved around Amr Moussa, the current head of the Arab League and former IAEA secretary Mohammed el-Baradei. Both names continue to be proposed as potential leaders of a caretaker government. The Egyptian opposition, which in parliament is largely represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, has far more power on ‘the street’ than in parliament and their total loss of seats in the November 28, 2010 legislative elections has made this official. The fact that there was a clampdown on communications preceding the elections, that vote count observers were prevented from doing so by security forces and that several hundred members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested amid fraudulent practices at several polling stations fueled the people’s disillusionment with president Mubarak, even ahead of the spark from Tunisia. The Tunisians have then given the Egyptians a template on “How to Topple a Dictator 101.”
The Tunisian Template:
The template starts with a genuine and spontaneous popular uprising, followed by the contested dictator naming of a highly unpopular interim government, while the dictator looks for a new home. The people add pressure to purge the old guard from the interim government characterized by an interim government reshuffle that largely contains technocrats who are independent from the defunct regime. This helps establish some sort of continuity, which in the case of Tunisia comes in form of the Prime Minister Ghannouchi, and two junior ministers all from the Ben Ali era. This assures stability, even while the bulk of the interim executive branch is derived from independent entities. Even as Tunisians still face the prospect of protracted negotiations and reorganization, they can at least begin to see the end of the tunnel and resume their day-to-day life.
Egypt is not even close to such a point. The coming days and weeks could bring the country near a full-blown civil war. First is the fact that the people are demanding nothing less than the Mubarak’s departure. This means the rebellion is not about food only but about restoring human dignity and civil liberties in an era of fast moving information, Facebook, Twitter and Wikileaks. As did Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak appointed a Vice President, a job given to Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian Intelligence who is known for being equally unpopular among the Islamists and the conservatives. He was reportedly the main figure responsible for jailing Islamist opposition figures since the mid-1980’s; that is already a bad start. We at the North Africa Journal do not believe that Hosni Mubarak named Suleiman willingly. He was most likely imposed by the Egyptian military establishment to distance Mubarak and deal with the crisis. Indeed, the two men are not necessarily friends. Sources in Cairo say despite Suleiman having saved Mubarak’s life in a coup attempt in 1995, Mubarak ended up sidelining him to reduce his political ambitions and remove competition for his son, Gamal Mubarak. Another figure was appointed in this complex drama. Military man, Ahmed Chafik, former head of Air Force and civil aviation is now on the Prime Minister seat and in charge of forming a government.
What does any of this mean to the Egyptian public? Nothing! The Egyptian people have been all too clear. They demand a complete divorce from the regime, its president and all the shadowy figures that enabled Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship amid emergency laws and corruption, including these two appointees. However, the likelihood of such an outcome, a total divorce is unlikely. A revolution like Tunisia’s is not necessarily where Egypt is headed, but there may be a face-saving plan in the form of a neutral figure that had nothing to do with the old regime. Although opposition figure Mohamed Al Baradei is not well connected in Egypt, and is often considered as a representative of the upper-class elite, he can act as the interim leader who will manage the transition. We believe that the fact that he is not tainted by the Mubarak regime, he can play a technocratic role of driving smooth transition, first starting by calming the population, then helping shape the course of a permanent solution. However, el-Baradei faces the hurdle of not being registered in a formally recognized party, much less the NDP even if last spring, the rumor of a potential el-Baradei candidature had invigorated the political process in Egypt, raising the topic of true political reform.
As for the United States, Egypt’s historical patron, there is a sense of inevitability and sense that the situation in Egypt could derail beyond control. All commentators from the right to the left agree that Mubarak was a bad leader. The left has been more understanding of events and a sense of excitement over what is happening in the Arab world could be seen among many, including some leading figures in Congress. To summarize the attitudes on the right, the idea is “yes Mubarak is a bad guy, but he is our guy.” This means while there is no love for the dictator, many in the US worry about a drastic change in Egypt that could bring the Islamists close to power and can be a destabilization factor in the region. So the US administration is stuck, so is Obama. So much so that we are in that situation that Vice President Joe Biden predicted when in October 2008 his stated to attendees of a fundraising event in Seattle "Mark my words; the world will test Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy." The only problem is that Biden projected the crisis to happen within 6 months of Obama’s taking office. Biden added “Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy." Egypt is it then.
As for the Muslim Brotherhood and the ‘fundamentalists’, their agenda and influence has drawn much of its strength from the international situation. Mubarak is considered to have been very soft on Israel, seeing as Egypt has largely complied to Israeli demands to seal the border with Gaza at Rafah to control infiltration of people and goods in violation of the Israeli imposed embargo. The continuation of the Palestinian crisis, which is reaching a point of hopelessness in spite of the US administration’s evident irritation with the Netanyahu government, will represent a tough test for any Egyptian government, regardless of who takes over from Mubarak. The Egyptian street will demand more solidarity with the Palestinians, while the government, eager to maintain the flow of some two billion dollars in aid from the United States (something which the military establishment is especially eager not to lose), may be drawn into an untenable – vis-à-vis the Egyptian ‘street’ - pro-Israeli stance, raising the profile of the fundamentalists. Seeing as American military and financial aid is contingent on the continued maintenance of the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, the Egyptian military establishment will be all the more concerned to back a presidential candidate that can be relied upon not to take an excessively pan-Arab nationalist outlook, so as not to later the status-quo.
In summary, the recent steps taken by Mubarak are not good enough. In fact, these steps may have been forced by the military leadership given the figures named as Vice President and Prime Minister. These new leaders will have to realize that they are not endorsed by their people and governing in such environment will be impossible. They will have to make more concessions if they want to avoid a civil war. Meanwhile, Mubarak is likely shopping around for real estate, outside of Egypt, perhaps trying to get a group rate for Arab dictators to Saudi Arabia…
Discussions from the Editors: Audio Files