Photo from Andrew Sullivan’s blog
Robert Springborg at Foreign Policy:
While much of American media has termed the events unfolding in Egypt today as “clashes between pro-government and opposition groups,” this is not in fact what’s happening on the street. The so-called “pro-government” forces are actually Mubarak’s cleverly orchestrated goon squads dressed up as pro-Mubarak demonstrators to attack the protesters in Midan Tahrir, with the Army appearing to be a neutral force. The opposition, largely cognizant of the dirty game being played against it, nevertheless has had little choice but to call for protection against the regime’s thugs by the regime itself, i.e., the military. And so Mubarak begins to show us just how clever and experienced he truly is. The game is, thus, more or less over.
The threat to the military’s control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Millions of demonstrators in the street have not broken the chain of command over which President Mubarak presides. Paradoxically the popular uprising has even ensured that the presidential succession will not only be engineered by the military, but that an officer will succeed Mubarak. The only possible civilian candidate, Gamal Mubarak, has been chased into exile, thereby clearing the path for the new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman. The military high command, which under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system, can now breathe much more easily than a few days ago. It can neutralize any further political pressure from below by organizing Hosni Mubarak’s exile, but that may well be unnecessary.
The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration. They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy. When it became clear last week that the Ministry of Interior’s crowd-control forces were adding to rather than containing the popular upsurge, they were suddenly and mysteriously removed from the street. Simultaneously, by releasing a symbolic few prisoners from jail; by having plainclothes Ministry of Interior thugs engage in some vandalism and looting (probably including that in the Egyptian National Museum); and by extensively portraying on government television an alleged widespread breakdown of law and order, the regime cleverly elicited the population’s desire for security. While some of that desire was filled by vigilante action, it remained clear that the military was looked to as the real protector of personal security and the nation as a whole. Army units in the streets were under clear orders to show their sympathy with the people.
The military has not directly participated in the crackdown, which preserves the appearance that the military was not involved in attacking the protesters and keeps the military from being split, but it has stood by while Mubarak’s goons target the protesters. As the new cabinet is filled with figures representing the interests of the military, this ought to have been clear to all a few days ago. If Mubarak is on the way out after the next election, Suleiman will be taking over for him. In Tunisia the uprising prompted a “soft” coup against Ben Ali, and Ben Ali could not stay so long as the military was unwilling to use force to defend his hold on power. As quite a few people expected earlier this month, the alignment of interests between the military and Mubarak mattered more than the outrage and persistence of the protesters. Instead of a “soft” coup approved by the military, there won’t be any sort of coup, but an organized (though perhaps not all that “orderly”) transition from one military-backed strongman to another.
I’m not sure that this means that the “historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe and even Israel could do business, will have been lost, maybe forever.” That assumes a great many things about what would have followed. It could also be that Egypt has avoided even more destructive political upheaval and massive suffering.
It might seem surprising that Mubarak was so willing to defy the Obama administration’s clear hint that he sould quickly transition out of power. In fact, Mubarak’s slap in the face of President Obama will not be punished and it is nothing new. It shows again American toothlessness and weakness in the Middle East, and will encourage the enemies of the US to treat it with similar disdain.
The tail has long wagged the dog in American Middle East policy. The rotten order of the modern Middle East has been based on wily local elites stealing their way to billions while they took all the aid they could from the United States, even as they bit the hand that fed them. First the justification was the putative threat of International Communism (which however actually only managed to gather up for itself the dust of Hadramawt in South Yemen and the mangy goats milling around broken-down Afghan villages). More recently the cover story has been the supposed threat of radical Islam, which is a tiny fringe phenomenon in most of the Middle East that in some large part was sowed by US support for the extremists in the Cold War as a foil to the phantom of International Communism. And then there is the set of myths around Israel, that it is necessary for the well-being of the world’s Jews, that it is an asset to US security, that it is a great ethical enterprise– all of which are patently false.
On such altars are the labor activists, youthful idealists, human rights workers, and democracy proponents in Egypt being sacrificed with the silver dagger of filthy lucre.
Mubarak is taking his cues for impudence from the far rightwing government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which began the Middle Eastern custom of humiliating President Barack Obama with impunity. Obama came into office pledging finally to move smartly to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Netanyahu government did not have the slightest intention of allowing a Palestinian state to come into existence. Israel was founded on the primal sin of expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in what is now Israel, and then conniving at keeping them stateless, helpless and weak ever after. Those who fled the machine guns of the Irgun terrorist group to the West Bank and Gaza, where they dwelt in squalid refugee camps, were dismayed to see the Israelis come after them in 1967 and occupy them and further dispossess them. This slow genocide against a people that had been recognized as a Class A Mandate by the League of Nations and scheduled once upon a time for independent statehood is among the worst ongoing crimes of one people against another in the world. Many governments are greedy to rule over people reluctant to be so ruled. But no other government but Israel keeps millions of people stateless while stealing their land and resources or maintaining them in a state of economic blockade and food insecurity.
Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:
What now? I would say that the time has come for the Obama administration to escalate to the next step of actively trying to push Mubarak out. They were right to not do so earlier. No matter how frustrated activists have been by his perceived hedging, until yesterday it was not the time to move to the bottom line. Mubarak is an American ally of 30 years and needed to be given the chance to respond appropriately. And everyone seems to forget that magical democracy words (a phrase which as far as I know I coined) don’t work. Obama saying “Mubarak must go” would not have made Mubarak go, absent the careful preparation of the ground so that the potential power-brokers saw that they really had no choice. Yesterday’s orgy of state-sanctioned violence should be the moment to make clear that there is now no alternative.
The administration’s diplomacy thus far has been building to this moment. It would have been far preferable if the quiet, patient diplomacy had worked, without an explicit call by the U.S. for Mubarak to be thrown from power. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mubarak has preferred to stick with the depressingly familiar playbook of the struggling despot. The violence unleashed yesterday was as predictable as it was horrific. But that it happened after a series of highly public American warnings against such violence must now trigger an American response. After Mubarak violated clear American public red lines — on violence and an immediate, meaningful transition — there’s really no choice.
The administration has already condemned and deplored yesterday’s violence. It must now make clear that an Egyptian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak is no longer one with which the United States can do business, and that a military which sanctions such internal violence is not one with which the United Staes can continue to partner. The Egyptian military must receive the message loudly, directly and clearly that the price of a continuing relationship with America is Mubarak’s departure and a meaningful transition to a more democratic and inclusive political system. It must understand that if it doesn’t do this, then the price will not just be words or public shaming but rather financial and political. If Mubarak remains in place, Egypt faces a future as an international pariah without an international patron and with no place in international organizations or forums. If he departs, and a meaningful transition begins, then Egypt can avoid that fate.
Laura Rozen at Politico:
The Obama White House’s Egypt troubleshooter, former U.S. Amb. to Egypt Frank G. Wisner, abruptly returned to Washington from Cairo Wednesday, as violence sharply escalated and pro-regime mobs attacked demonstrators demanding Hosni Mubarak step down.
Wisner, sent to Cairo Sunday at the suggestion of Hillary Clinton, found his conversations with Egyptian officials no longer useful, ABC News reported, supposedly after reports disclosed his meeting wth Mubarak to persuade him to depart. He also met with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman.
As violence sharply escalated Wednesday, with the army standing by as pro-regime mobs charged anti-Mubarak demonstrators with knives, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, wounding hundreds, Clinton expressed shock at the violence and came close to accusing the Egyptian government of being responsible.
The violence “was a shocking development after many days of consistently peaceful demonstrations,” Clinton told Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman in a phone call Wednesday, the State Department said. “The Secretary urged that the Government of Egypt hold accountable those who were responsible for violent acts.”
The Egyptian military “really blew it today,” Michele Dunne, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Wednesday. “Much of the goodwill towards the army inside and outside of Egypt evaporated.”
Nick Kristof in NYT:
I was on Tahrir Square, watching armed young men pour in to scream in support of President Hosni Mubarak and to battle the pro-democracy protesters. Everybody, me included, tried to give them a wide berth, and the bodies of the injured being carried away added to the tension. Then along came two middle-age sisters, Amal and Minna, walking toward the square to join the pro-democracy movement. They had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them.
Yet side by side with the ugliest of humanity, you find the best. The two sisters stood their ground. They explained calmly to the mob why they favored democratic reform and listened patiently to the screams of the pro-Mubarak mob. When the women refused to be cowed, the men lost interest and began to move on — and the two women continued to walk to the center of Tahrir Square.
I approached the women and told them I was awed by their courage. I jotted down their names and asked why they had risked the mob’s wrath to come to Tahrir Square. “We need democracy in Egypt,” Amal told me, looking quite composed. “We just want what you have.”
But when I tried to interview them on video, thugs swarmed us again. I appeased the members of the mob by interviewing them (as one polished his razor), and the two sisters managed again to slip away and continue toward the center of Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, to do their part for Egyptian democracy.
Thuggery and courage coexisted all day in Tahrir Square, just like that. The events were sometimes presented by the news media as “clashes” between rival factions, but that’s a bit misleading. This was an organized government crackdown, but it relied on armed hoodlums, not on police or army troops.