It occurs to me that I’m something of an expert in government repression. Not a foremost expert, mind you, but on account of my political science training I do know more about how to be a brutal dictator than most people. This post is about how Egyptian man-who-would-be-king Hosni Mubarak has screwed it up recently, and how it is starting to look like this could cost him everything–any day now, rather than this promised September.
To clarify, I’d like to point back to the opposition protests that brought down the Ben Ali kleptocracy in Tunisia in just 1 month. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was the remarkable, swift course by which the mortal wounding by self-immolation of a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate on December 17th was succeeded by a month of growing protests by unemployed, college-educated 20-somethings. I previously wrote an account of the course of events in that revolution. From their mid-December advent out in rural towns, it wasn’t until January that the protests spread to coastal resort cities, catapulting them to international prominence. It wasn’t until January 11th that protests reached Tunis.
Then, by the end of that very week, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator for 23 years, was gone, chased out of the country. His fate seems to have been sealed by 2 developments–one, his firing of his cabinet and promise to reign-in corruption during that final week, the other the army’s response to his call to fire on the unreceptive protesters. After that order came, Tunisia’s apolitical army simply left Tunis to the protesters, and Ben Ali to his fate. That night–the night of Friday, January 15–Ben Ali fled Tunisia. As former colonizer and ally France wouldn’t grant the hated president-for-life asylum, he fled to Saudi Arabia, which previously hosted Ugandan dictator Idi Amin‘s long retirement.
What does this have to do with Mubarak and Egypt? The Liberal Ironist believes that Mubarak’s opposition-crushing plan has been similarly-incoherent and has thus endangered not only his own but any dictatorship in that country. (I know, how very sad.)
In general, to repress an opposition movement, a dictator ideally should make credible concessions while also making it clear he is committed to maintaining control, come hell or high water. Mubarak’s promise not to run for re-election in September fails both the credibility test (he has promised democratic reforms in the past, recently to George W. Bush, but never felt constrained to implement them, and has famously maintained a state-of-emergency clause in Egypt for almost 30 years) and the resolve test (he has suddenly and unaccountably promised to leave in a few months–when the protesters want him on a plane now). Both the lack of conditions that could constrain Mubarak to make good on his word and the fact that he has made major admissions after just a week of protesting legitimizes and emboldens the opposition.
Besides that, and on an uglier note, his “crackdown” on demonstrators lacks the spectacle of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that made China safe once again for Communist Party dictatorship. The criminal outrages perpetrated by the police and other Mubarak thugs fail to demonstrate the consequences of opposition; rather they demonstrate for everyone what is at stake in ridding Egypt of him. On the current trajectory I think the protesters are winning.
So, what is the endgame? Where is Egypt going? Nothing to date, including the imposition of a curfew, the close proximity of the as-yet passive Egyptian Army, or the brutality of the police, has cowed the protesters yet. Yesterday, however, was much worse than the previous for the protesters, as (ostensibly) civilian Mubarak protesters turned out in the streets in force and engaged in a series of clashes with the opposition that, in the view of New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof, amounts to Mubarak’s bid to crack down on the protesters. While this has resulted in an explosion in casualties among the protesters, it hasn’t visibly discouraged them. So now the Army–or at least its generals–finally issued an implicit warning of an immanent reckoning. The New York Times covered this significant statement:
“Earlier, on state television, a military spokesman had asked the government’s foes: ‘Can we walk safely down the street? Can we go back to work regularly? Can we go out into the streets with our children to schools and universities? Can we open our stores, factories and clubs?’
“‘You are the ones able to restore normal life,’ he said.
“‘Your message was received and we know your demands,’ the spokesman said. ‘We are with you and for you.’
“The army’s role and its ultimate game plan have remained opaque, with soldiers seeming to fraternize with protesters, without moving against the elite to which its officers belong. While the military has said it will not use force against peaceful protesters, the signs on Wednesday suggested that any gap between it and Mr. Mubarak was narrowing.”
The “signs” that the Egyptian Army’s interests have converged with Mubarak’s must ultimately be top-heavy, as protesters to date have been allowed to climb atop tanks deployed to the streets to keep the peace. As I previously blogged, the Egyptian Army is a conscription army and thus unusually representative of the general public–thus the rank-and-file who would have to carry out violent crackdown orders on the opposition protesters must include many who identify with that movement.
There are perceptive pessimists about the fate of the Egyptian opposition. Blogging for Foreign Policy, Robert Springborg made an interesting argument that almost all of the chaos currently wracking the streets of Cairo was deliberately-engineered by Mubarak to fatigue the general public of the opposition protests. Springborg also noted that Mubarak has just appointed a vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman, for the first time in his 30-year reign. (Reflecting the sort of calculation Saddam Hussein would applaud, Mubarak previously hadn’t appointed a vice president because he thought that anyone in that office could potentially lead a coup against him.) A retired general, Ahmed Shafiq, has also been sworn-in as the new Prime Minister, obviously cementing the links between the top army ranks and the national government. Springborg thinks that the army is now sufficiently in control of the government to want to repress the opposition directly, that the opposition is divided between those satisfied by the few reforms they have been promised and the holdouts who lack a major constituency, and that the general public has been sufficiently cowed by the rampant crime in the streets and the general shutdown of commerce. (Springborg also frankly suspects that the rapid deterioration of conditions in Egypt has been largely the intentional work of the government.)
The Liberal Ironist thinks Springborg has made this call too soon, wrongly-attributing the ambivalence of the army towards the protesters to a deliberate confidence-building exercise by Mubarak, and aggregating the wishes of the generals, who probably do feel connected to Mubarak, with common soldiers and their middle-ranking officers, whom likely at least sympathize with the regime-skepticism of the general public. Mubarak has probably placated his generals, but there is still the fact that the protesters haven’t been cowed. As of this writing, the military units deployed to Cairo still haven’t confronted the opposition, merely placing themselves between the opposition and Mubarak’s thugs. If the opposition doesn’t disperse, Mubarak will eventually have to resort to brutality to remain in power. The further down the ranks you go in the Egyptian Army, the sense of affinity for Mubarak apparently declines steeply. Mubarak can’t afford a mutiny if it comes to a “Tiananmen Square moment.” His hand, and his generals’ hand, is genuinely-vulnerable, though that may not be apparent.
The Egyptian Army has the fate of the country in its hands. Mubarak’s dubious promises to the opposition and appalling yet indecisive brutalization of the opposition has neither placated nor cowed the opposition, wrecked the country’s economy, and slowly made his allies abroad angrier and more-pensive.