A Crucial Moment for Egypt’s Democracy Movement

As I start this post, it’s about midday in Cairo.  It’s about time for the Islamic noon prayers.  The protesters are hosting this about an hour before a Coptic Christian prayer; about an hour later there will be another Coptic Christian prayer.  This, like the opposition groups’ appointment of former IAEA Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei as their joint spokesman and negotiator, is part of a conscious effort by the protesters to assure their large, anxious Western audience that this is not some kind of totalitarian or fundamentalist movement.  The democratic movement in Egypt emerged, it must be noted, for the same basic reasons as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia–in response to deteriorating economic conditions coupled with a government accustomed to acting with conspicuous impunity.

But the Egyptian democratic movement isn’t the only player in Egypt with media savvy.  Since the protests began, president-for-life Hosni Mubarak has hypocritically asserted that his continued governance protects the country from anarchy.  This is ridiculous; last Saturday real chaos spread through the streets of Cairo as what were obviously thugs armed by the government attacked protesters and anyone else they encountered in the streets of the capitol.

As I explained with the Mubaradox, Mubarak’s continuation as Egypt’s ruler is the central grievance of the protesters and for him to remain after nearly 30 unaccountable years is intolerable to them.  Mubarak’s desire to see (what he now claims will be) his last term through might be fair if his very method of governing wasn’t flouting the law he has pledged to enforce.  Mubarak has officially maintained a state of national emergency–and the augmented executive powers that go along with it–since 1981.  He has repeatedly used fraud to prevent opposition parties from having even occasional power to exercise in parliament.  In January 2005 he had Ayman Nour, who would be his primary opponent in that year’s presidential election, charged with a crime and arrested–even though the plaintiff in that case admitted in court that state security had forced him to bring the charges.  Last weekend he appointed General Omar Suleiman as his first vice president–after almost 30 years in power.  His government currently claims that 11 Egyptian protesters have been killed in clashes with the police or the government; a United Nations investigation claims the death toll is about 300.

The basic fact that justifies the opposition’s anger is its continuous need for skepticism towards what should be accountable authorities: Hosni Mubarak dissembles to his people almost constantly.  He holds regular elections and then imprisons challengers, intimidates voters and stuffs ballots to the point that the opposition couldn’t possibly pose a challenge.  He says he values order and then arms criminal thugs in his own capital with the sole intent of making his own people fear for their safety.  Holding out for Mubarak’s departure from Egypt, as some opposition parties do as a precondition for talks with the government, is a reasonable stand to take because they have every reason to suspect Mubarak would just use the next 7 months to continue his Machiavellian maneuvers, whether for his own sake or that of a preferred successor to a similarly-unaccountable administration.  Fool me once, shame on you; lie to me for 30 years, and I’ll not turn my back on you until you’ve left the country.

Frank Wisner, the US envoy to Egypt, returned from a visit with Mubarak to say that his desire to see the rest of his term through was reasonable; the Liberal Ironist is happy that, at the very least, a senior Obama Administration official subsequently averred that “The views (Wisner) expressed today are his own.”  Strangely, Wisner defended Mubarak’s decision to stay on for now as “his opportunity to write his own legacy;” if Mubarak were truly concerned about his legacy I would think he should wish to depart quickly-enough to calm the protests.

Sunday is a business day in the Arab world; banks have been open for several hours today and the state TV has broadcast the notion that it’s business as usual in Egypt again.  Still, the protesters have turned out in vast numbers–as they should.  In spite of the damage to the Egyptian economy–and all the people anxious to get back to work or to get to the bank–it still isn’t clear that the political situation in Egypt has been changed.  Mubarak is still in power; remember that his first symbolic response to the protests was to fire his cabinet, then re-hire many of its members to other offices.  It appears that Mubarak will use every plausible appeal to his subjects’ weaknesses to try to end these protests–ingratiation through symbolic (but as yet immaterial) concessions, violent force, frightening propaganda, and finally now betting on popular exhaustion by directing a variety of appointed officials to call for a “return to normal.”

Hosni Mubarak is still in office, and all the top officials and generals continue to serve at his pleasure.  Nothing has actually changed yet, and the protesters–who have been both more-scrupulous and more-consistent than Mubarak to-date–should act accordingly.  A very good article in today’s New York Times weighs the stakes of complacency for the Egyptian opposition and our own government; whatever the reason for his circumspection, the Liberal Ironist hopes President Obama sees Hosni Mubarak for what he is: a man prepared to mortgage his country’s future for his own power.


3 thoughts on “A Crucial Moment for Egypt’s Democracy Movement

  1. Kukri

    I hope the US doesn’t drop the ball here: earlier in the week we called for Mubarak to begin the transition immediately, and now we support putting everything off until September. I fear we are losing the initiative, and people will once again jump to the conclusion the US is supporting a bad Middle Eastern dictator and doing nothing else.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      President Obama has indicated that he is skeptical of Mubarak’s intentions. He has done this without making explicit declaratives about Mubarak’s need to agree to the protesters’ basic demands (which may turn out to have been a mistake), but he has expressed his concerns about the “pretense of reform” and called for the political transition to begin immediately.

      Frank Wisner, acting as US Envoy to Egypt, said that Mubarak should be allowed to stay on until September, but that was his personal view. Wisner’s comments were naive at best; it may have been a mistake to send someone so fawning towards Mubarak. In any case he did not speak for the President, who wants Mubarak to go–but such confusion may be inevitable when the President refuses to spell out his position.

      1. J-Doug

        In any case he did not speak for the President, who wants Mubarak to go–but such confusion may be inevitable when the President refuses to spell out his position.

        And this is exactly the problem. The Obama/Clinton international diplomatic strategy has been largely behind-the-scenes, private negotiation. This is in contrast to the Bush/Rice approach, which was largely public condemnation.

        While the Obama approach is best almost all the time, the one time it is not helpful is when there is fighting in the streets. Once international concerns include domestic events, sending effective and credible signals is of utmost importance. Public signals are always more costly, and therefore more credible, and therefore more effect.

        Obama, just this once, needs to take a page from the Bush playbook. Pick a position, pick it publicly, and pick it resolutely. Even a public pro-Mubarak stance would lead to less unrest and bloodshed than a private anti-Mubarak stance (coupled with a vague public stance).

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