Monday, January 31, 2011

State of de Nile

I haven't said anything about the events in Egypt, much as I'd like to and as much as I've been following them, because - well, for a couple of reasons, central to which in that it's not really a matter of separate "events" but of a single ongoing event. It's an admittedly weak analogy, but think of it like a beating heart: It pulses with a series of individual beats but they're not the point; it's the continuing series of them that's meaningful and you have to look at the whole to see what's really going on.

Considering that I'm surely not a source anyone looks to for up-to-the-minute coverage of events - nor should they - and the fact that the "whole" is constantly changing, it's hard for me to say anything worthwhile that others haven't said or won't say sooner and probably better. So consider what follows some blue-skying about the future.

My own impression is that Mubarak is going down and that his regime will not survive much longer. The first hint was when the government, faced with the single focused demand of "Mubarak must go" made some totally-unrelated changes and promises that would not impinge on his control. That is always - always - the first step, a clear sign of a regime that has realized that it faces a serious challenge and it is trying to buy off the opposition on the cheap. When that didn't work, the result was more promises combined with threats.

Government's like Mubarak's always face the same dilemma when faced with a mass protest movement - especially when those protests appear in multiple places - when that movement is not coupled with outright violent insurrection: Go easy, you might encourage more protest. Crack down, and you also might encourage more protest as the result of outrage. There is a risk either way. Most repressive governments, in such cases, wind up doing both. After the fig-leaf promises, comes the hope that the protests will fade away. When they don't, comes the crackdown.

Most cases, just like this one, run that same course. The break point comes when the crackdown turns from a show of force to real force, real state violence. What happens then often tells the future.

By the third day of the protests in Egypt, police were shooting demonstrators; by Sunday, when Mubarak gave the army orders to shoot to kill when it saw fit, at least 150 people already had been killed and thousands more wounded. But the demonstrations didn't stop. They kept right on going, even grew as the spirit grew. That's when I became convinced Mubarak was finished.

You want other signs beyond the on-going protests? How about this:
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad ... said that he will advocate for political and economic reform in Syria, following the massive protests that have recently swept the Middle East, which he said have ushered in a "new era."
Assad, that is, intends to be out in front of protests, to try on some reforms before the protests break out in Syria, the better to head them off. That's how seriously he takes what's going down in Egypt and how seriously he regards the potential of a threat to his own regime from the spread of protest, even as he also insists that his government is "more stable" than Mubarak's.

Here at home there is that fact that according to the Los Angeles Times, the Obama administration is
preparing for a post-Mubarak era after three decades. ...

As early as last Wednesday, the Obama administration recognized that they would not be able to prop up the Mubarak regime and keep it in power at all costs, [one former senior administration advisor] said.

"They don't want to push Mubarak over the cliff, but they understand that the Mubarak era is over...."
This in addition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of the word "transition" and the reference to US aid to Egypt being "reviewed" as events unfold. The implied threat about aid is unlikely to be carried out, but it does signal to Mubarak that yes, he can go too far. Then there is the attitude of the US toward Mubarak's newly-sworn in cabinet, an attitude the Voice of America described as "dismissive." The US is hedging its bets in case Mubarak does manage to survive, but what's clear is that his biggest sponsor, his long-time backer, is more than ready to see him go.

Like the man said, the Mubarak era is over.

At this point, Mubarak's only remaining clear option if he wants to maintain his regime is large-scale violent repression, which would require the cooperation of the military. That cooperation appears unlikely to come, especially after the military issued this statement, as translated by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which I spell out because if I said ABC you'd get the wrong idea:
Your armed forces acknowledges the legitimacy of the people's demands and is adamant on carrying out its responsibilities and protecting the country and its citizens as ever.

The armed forces' presence on the Egyptian streets is for your own sake - safety and security. Your armed forces have not and will not resort to the use of force against this great people.
(Al-Jazeera had a slightly different version of the statement, which added the line that the army "affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.")

Mahmoud Shokry, a former Egyptian diplomat, declared the army "is not a puppet" in anyone's hands.
“The army does not want to confront the youth,” Mr. Shokry said. “If they think this will make a kind of civil war, they will ask Mr. Mubarak to leave the country, I am sure.”
Meanwhile, on the ground, the military allowed citizens gathered in Tahrir Square to ignore the curfew and the soldiers freely mingled unarmed among the crowds. Their immediate superiors, the middle-rank officers,
try to avoid talking about politics but appear to sympathize with the sentiments of the masses demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
Clearly, Mubarak can't count on the army to save his pitiful hide. In what can only be seen as a last-ditch attempt to save himself, minutes after the military released its statement, Mubarak had his new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, declare
"I was assigned by the president today to contact all the political forces to start a dialogue about all the raised issues concerning constitutional and legislative reform...."
With force having failed, it's back to placate and stall. But I strongly suspect it will not be enough. Al-Jazeera reports that opposition leaders in Cairo rejected the offer of negotiations, saying that the protestors "say it isn't an issue of a different approach from Mubarak, they just don't want Mubarak." As for the pledge to institute economic and political reforms, it's regarded as too little, too late. What's even more, Suleiman is damaged goods: His history of working with the CIA on rendition may not be widely known in Egypt, but his role in Mubarak's intelligence service surely is. Indeed, there is speculation that he was chosen as VP because it would please the army, with which Mubarak was and is trying to strengthen relations, rather than with any eye to pleasing the protestors.

All of this is not to say Mubarak is totally without friends, however: On Saturday night, the Israel Foreign Ministry
issued a directive to around a dozen key embassies in the United States, Canada, China, Russia and several European countries. The ambassadors were told to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt's stability. In a special cable, they were told to get this word out as soon as possible.
Put more bluntly, Israel was telling its ambassadors to encourage other countries to "lay off Mubarak."
"The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren't considering their genuine interests," one senior Israeli official said.
Apparently justice, freedom, democracy, human rights, economic improvement, and all the rest of that leftist rot are not to be counted among "genuine interests." The attitude of "Wait a minute - how does this affect me?" is not limited to Americans.

As I type in these last few lines, it is a little after 6am in Egypt and we are hours away from the "march of a million people." Al-Jazeera's live blog quotes one of its correspondents in Tahrir Square as saying
[t]he protesters seem to be increasingly energised this morning. They clearly are determined to get today's march starting with a big bang. The atmosphere on Tahrir Square is very good. People seem to feel that some sort of victory is the air.
Perhaps they're right. They well could be. The dying Mubarak regime is trying as best as it can to limit the size of the action by blocking transportation and communication: The internet is down, there are predictions that the mobile phone network will be shut off, and all train traffic has been stopped. But while those trains can be stopped, there is a bigger train here, the train of history. And while I freely admit I have been wrong, even embarrassingly wrong, in predictions before, I think that that train is not one that will be derailed.

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