Egypt on the Brink - And the U.S. on the Wrong Side
Now comes the hard part. On February 7, the popular mobilization in Cairo and elsewhere seemed to have crested. The “normalization” of daily life in Cairo loomed closer. But on February 9, the regime’s claim that the revolt had been packaged, contained, and put on a shelf collapsed, as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians once again poured into their streets. Overflowing Tahrir Square, claiming the streets surrounding Parliament, and filling the streets of cities across the country, well over a million Egyptians reasserted and expanded their revolution’s unity, breadth and power.
The uncertainty that briefly seemed to threaten the potential and the reach of Egypt’s revolution is now reversed in the wake of extraordinary public demonstrations. More than 6,000 Canal workers in Suezwalked off the job protesting the regime’s brutal economic policies. Law professors marched to Tahrir in their black robes, demanding a nation of law. Hundreds of thousands clogged the streets of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. One thousand cement workers walked out in protest of working conditions. Egypt’s three independent unions launched a call for a general strike linked to the demands of the Tahrir Square democracy activists – Mubarak and the Mubarak regime must go.
And yet. Egypt – and those around the world supporting Egypt’s democracy – may now be facing the greatest challenge. What the Egyptian revolution has made incandescently clear is that the people of Egypt – not Mubarak or his torturer vice-president, not his intelligence police or his military, nor the United States government – are in charge. Decisions will be made by Egypt’s people, in their diverse and empowered millions, not by the regime. But the forces arrayed against them have been strengthened in the last few days, as U.S. rhetorical ambivalence towards the democracy movement turned into full-scale embrace of the regime.
A Shift in Rhetoric, Not Policy
U.S. policy had never actually changed; the spigot of Washington’s $1.5 billion of military and security assistance to Mubarak, the centerpiece of that policy, was never turned off. But the language had shifted significantly. President Obama’s speech unequivocally asserted that Egypt needed a transition that was “meaningful, peaceful, and now.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swung from her embarrassing start-of-the-uprising “Egypt is stable” to a call for change that responded to the protesters’ demands; her spokesman even hinted that the administration was “looking at” the possibility of cutting U.S. aid. But even then they were careful. They never said “Mubarak must go.”
And ten days or so into the uprising, it seems the Obama administration has made up its mind: whatever the soaring speeches, its operative loyalty will stay with its longstanding ally in Cairo and the illusion of stability Mubarak provides – Egypt’s people be damned. On February 5, Obama sent former ambassador to Egypt and Mubarak confidant Frank Wisner to meet with the discredited president. Obama’s official message was that neither Mubarak nor his son Gamal should run for president in September; it was widely assumed that there may have also been a hint that Mubarak should actually resign. They met in private, and after Obama’s speech “meaningful, peaceful and now” speech it was widely rumored that a piqued Mubarak refused to see Wisner again.
But just hours later Wisner told a globally-televised diplomatic meeting in Munich that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical” and that “Mubarak must stay in office.” Obama officials quickly tried to distance themselves from the remarks, but claiming that virtually simultaneous statements of the personally-appointed special envoy of the president were just in his private capacity and didn’t reflect the administration’s view, was a hard sell. It is doubtful anyone in Tahrir Square is buying the “he’s just a private citizen” line, especially since veteran journalist Robert Fisk’s disclosure that Wisner’s lobbying firm has long represented and advised Mubarak’s regime, the Egyptian military, and Egypt’s economic development agency, has gone viral in Egypt and around the world.
Egypt's Democratic Movement Deepens
In Egypt, the protesters’ commitment remains. Fear has been broken – the 30-year-old Egyptian line that “no one in this country ever opens their mouth except for the dentist” is way out of date. And the breadth of the protests remains staggering. After a couple of days of smaller levels of participation, another unexpected incident propelled hundreds of thousands of first-timers into Tahrir Square and other protests. That was the release of former Google executive and democracy activist Wael Ghonim after being held blindfolded and incommunicado for 12 days by pro-Mubarak forces. His first Tweet after being released said, “Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it,” and his on-air emotional response to the news that more than 300 people had been killed by regime loyalists during his imprisonment, galvanized vast new sectors of Egypt’s middle class, always perhaps sympathetic to the protests but heretofore uncertain or afraid to participate. The vast mobilizations and engagement of organized workers and trade unions point to a rising revolution and escalating public support for the same demands: Mubarak and Mubarakism must go.
This is a moment of enormous challenge for Egypt’s revolutionaries. Their breadth, diversity, and their wide unity against Mubarak are their strengths. They have forced concessions from the regime that only weeks ago would have been breathtaking – Mubarak and his son agreeing not to run for president again (though that promise has been made and broken before): appointment of a vice-president and prime minister; agreement for some kind of commission to propose constitutional changes; and the resignation of the top leadership of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
But in these revolutionary times, those concessions are way too little and far too late to matter. The main demand stands: Mubarak must go. But there are, inevitably, differences among Egyptians on a host of key strategic questions, including whether anyone should negotiate with the regime while Mubarak remains in power.
So far, the leadership continues to rest with the younger generation, which lead the protests in Tahrir Square and in the streets. Those who have held some kind of discussions – they were careful not to call them negotiations – with the regime, including the Muslim Brotherhood, old sort-of opposition parties, some respected intellectuals – seem to have acknowledged that the talks were not serious; it remains unclear whether they will return to the palace. But the April 6 Movement, the Khaled Said Movement, and others of Tahrir Square, remain defiant.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency and a representative the youth leaders will support in any talks they do approve, has made clear he will not talk to the regime until Mubarak goes. If Wael Ghonim emerges as another leading voice, he will almost certainly agree. These emerging leaders’ positions reflect the steadfastness of hundreds of thousands.
Resistance to Change
But Mubarak remains in control. And Egypt’s military, while sticking to its commitment so far not to fire on the protesters, has made clear its red line – it will not depose Mubarak or ask him to step down. Military machismo being what it is, Egypt’s brass seems to believe it would be an affront to military dignity to succumb to the pressure of the street.
Mubarak’s hand-picked Vice-President Omar Suleiman, long-time confidant of the CIA and the Israeli government, appears to have made clear to the U.S. administration that the Egyptian military opposes any effort to oust Mubarak – and the Obama administration is betting its cards on the military. Elite discourse echoes that view. Traditional Washington powerbrokers are siding against Egypt’s democratic revolution, not only from the right but centrists such as long-time head of the Council on Foreign Relations Les Gelb, who spits out the word “mob” over and over again when describing Egypt’s people.
It’s not clear what the response of Egypt’s military would be to any U.S. sanctions targeting the regime. Mubarak’s own defense minister General Mohamed Tantawi, during the neighboring revolt that ousted the Tunisian dictator, said he believes the role of the army is to defend the nation, not any particular regime. But whether he would maintain that position in his own country remains uncertain – and unlikely. So far the military is holding to its no-fire position, but is exerting significant pressure on the protesters, including squeezing them into a much smaller area within Tahrir Square. High-ranking officers are urging demonstrators to go home, saying normalcy must be returned. Relations between protesters and the military are not reflecting the same level of celebratory unity that characterized the earlier days. And Vice-President Suleiman is threatening a possible coup d’etat.
Moving Forward: A New Kind of Engagement
Furthering the danger facing Egypt’s democratic movement, the U.S. remains committed to its 30-year stability-trumps-democracy position. Despite its effort to distance itself from Wisner’s open support for Mubarak, the Obama administration has in fact all but endorsed Wisner’s position. On Monday the New York Times headline was “Warning Against Hasty Exit for Mubarak” and the one doing the warning was Hillary Clinton. On February 7, the Times’ print version front page top story was headlined “For Egypt, U.S. Seems to Settle on Slow Path.” The danger for the administration, of course, is that whatever post-Mubarak government emerges from Egypt’s democratic surge, it will have to do far better than Mubarak ever needed to do in winning public support. And its alliances – and allies – will be judged by Egypt’s people on the basis of where they stood when Egypt’s democracy was born.
If the Obama administration is serious about building a new kind of engagement with the Arab world and with Arab peoples, it better get serious about the movement rising in the Arab world’s largest and most influential country. It better start recognizing that this is a democratic and revolutionary process. This movement may not win everything this round, but politics and power in Egypt – and between Egypt and even its longest-running backers – will never be the same.
And we in this country will be judged as well. This is a revolution shaped and fought and sacrificed for by Egyptians – but it is our government, using our name and our tax dollars, that is right now a major player. And right now it's on the wrong side. That $1.5 billion in our tax money that the Obama administration is still sending to Egypt’s government is a big part of what makes Mubarak able to stand up to his people and refuse their demand to resign.
Hillary Clinton’s sudden worries that Egypt’s constitution might present problems after Mubarak resigns is a huge signal to Mubarak that the United States has got his back. If Egypt’s military and/or security police decide that it’s okay to use U.S. manufactured Abrams tanks they have parked around the square, U.S. M16 rifles and tear-gas, or even U.S. F-16 bombers for something more than just frightening people in the streets they will do so because they know the U.S. government will have their back. And that’s what will count.
The people of Egypt have an enormous task challenging their own government. Our job is to challenge ours.
Our call – the Obama administration should:
End military and security assistance as long as Mubarak remains in power.
Announce the U.S. does not endorse negotiations without the participation of the leaders of the uprising.
Make President Obama’s words real, with actions showing that the U.S. is not trying to choose the new leadership.