With the current unrest in Egypt almost 6 months after the removal of former President Hosni Mubarak which will culminate in another mass demonstration at Tahrir Square today to protest against the perceived lack of movement to hold members of the previous regime accountable (sparked in this case by several days demonstrations and rioting against the release of members of the police accused of murdering protesters during the initial uprisings), we are re-publishing some initial analysis which was written at the beginning of February before the removal of Mubarak.
In hindsight, most of the analysis has been proven correct: the regime remains largely in place and the pressure from the uprising was released through the sacrifice of Mubarak and elements of his allies. While a larger role for Omar Suleiman was originally perceived, this has been reduced due to the damage to his reputation while handling the uprisings – but in his place another former regime stalwart with close ties to America from the military (Tantawi) took his position as the leader of the “transitional” regime, and serves the same purpose of maintaining the close connection to the American government while trying to appear as an agent of change.
Though it is clear that the military has tried, and continues to exert utmost effort to exhaust the protest movement through a series of concessions to buy time for itself by sacrificing various former players in the government, while the blocks of the former regime remain in place along with its close relationship to outside powers, the longevity of the protests is proving to be a thorn in their side. Though there is still no real unified direction for Egypt’s future political program, it is clear that the ruse of trying to appease the Egyptian public through symbolic sacrifices (normally done on a Thursday to appease the public before a possible Friday protest) has not worked effectively, and that elements of the uprising are aware that the regime remains in place and are still able to mobilise considerable opinion against it at moments of pressure. This is likely to continue for as long as the public feels that some of their core immediate local grievances are not addressed – a government that is accountable and the rule of law is applied.
The American Government has decided – “The Future of Egypt will be determined by its people”
Or so the people are supposed to believe as they follow the various proclamations coming out of the White House over the last few days. What has made such statements difficult for anyone to swallow is that until the outbreak of popular uprisings against the Egyptian regime which begun on January 25th the future of Egypt had been held ransom by a military dictatorship with the explicit support of America for the last 30 years, with President Hosni Mubarak feted by Vice President Joe Biden as recently as January 27th as “an ally of ours” who shouldn’t be referred to as a “dictator”. Ex VP Dick Cheney has also weighed in, praising him as a “good friend” of the US, while Barack Obama described him as a “force for stability and good” during his visit to Cairo in 2009. Indeed, it is difficult to find anyone in the American administration with a bad word for the ‘not a dictator’ even after the brazenly open and criminal aggression of the regime against the protesters broadcast live to the World courtesy of al-Jazeera and other satellite channels, perhaps unsurprising given his decades of stalwart service in protecting American interests in the region, whether through blockading Gaza on behalf of the Israeli’s or renting out Egypt as the CIA’s offshore torture service.
However, even though the American administration would ideally like to keep their “good friend” in place, it may be that this solution could be untenable given the anger palpably on display in Liberation Square and elsewhere across the Egyptian street. In the words of Republican Senator John McCain tweeted to the World “Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power”. Regrettable it may be for the American government as evidenced by the continued eulogising of Mubarak, (though most Egyptians would probably not share their sentiments), but the street has been baying for a head and has so far been unsatisfied by the sacrificial lambs offered up such as that of the hated former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly. In his official capacity the hapless al-Adly had been the face of the government department responsible for the torture and imprisonment of literally hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, the vast majority of whom have never been charged with any crime, all with the ultimate objective of intimidating the society into complete submission. His failure to squash the demonstrations effectively sealed his departure, one of the few decisions taken based upon merit and performance rather than the usual cronyism that pervades the regime. Just as Mubarak was prepared to give up on such a loyal servant as al-Adly, the American administration has shown itself prepared to sacrifice its “stalwart ally” (Obama’s words) if and when the situation calls for it. In such circumstances, friendships count for little when weighed against the imperial necessity of ensuring a firm grip being enforced upon any process of change to protect “vital interests” while keeping the restless natives satisfied.
Thankfully for the Americans they had another strong asset in the Egyptian regime – Omar Suleiman, a man who according to American documents released by Wikileaks is so loyal to the CIA that if asked for a drop of blood as a DNA sample he would be willing to sacrifice a whole arm as a demonstration of his fealty. Not his own of course, but the one belonging to a prisoner who according to Human Rights Watch had been rendered to the Egyptian authorities before being tortured incommunicado for more than 5 years. After numerous contacts between the Americans and the Egyptian regime, including Obama and the ‘not a dictator’ Mubarak, Suleiman was made Vice President at the end of January and has since become the point-man for the Americans in trying to deal with the crisis, effectively sidelining his friend and (former) boss.
Suleiman, like the President and the newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, is also a military man. Since the Free Officers Coup in 1952, Egypt has effectively been run by a thinly veiled military junta, from Gamal Abdul-Nasser to Anwar Sadat to the ‘not a dictator’ Mubarak. This suits the Americans just fine, who curry favour with the military to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year military aid. As noted by Admiral Mike Mullen, such amounts represent “a significant investment” especially when totalled up over the time-span of a 30 year dictatorship, “but it’s an investment that has paid off for a long, long time”. And it appears to be continuing to pay off, which makes the American government’s outward claims that Egyptians have the right to make their own decisions ring decidedly hollow, with extensive daily contact between senior members of the administration and military with their Egyptian counterparts indicating the extent of their intervention in what is transpiring within the regime there.
Upon American advice, Suleiman is currently running plays straight out of the handbook for maintaining regime status quo while affecting the appearance of change – engaging the official “opposition” in a series of meetings whereby cosmetic concessions will be granted over time, all the while slowly taking the energy out of the real opposition found camped out in Liberation Square. What might make such tactics even more effective is the apparent lack of consensus amongst the protestors over what should come after any fall of the Mubarak regime, leaving Suleiman and the military the opportunity to engineer a succession while at the same time offering up the President as a sacrificial lamb at some point. As pointed out by Professor Robert Springborg of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate school, “we (the US and EU) are working closely with the military…to ensure a continuation of a dominant role of the military in the society, the polity and the economy”, highlighted by the fact that American demands have been for the military to organise any transition rather than any of the “meaningful” change that they like to pay lip-service to.
In other words, the Americans have been scrambling since the events of January 25th to put together an effective mechanism which would enable the maintaining of the regime, irrespective of where Mubarak ends up, which could be continued under the veneer of some trappings of “liberal democracy” in the future. The initial concessions on the table offered up by Suleiman point clearly to this end-game, with any change to take place within the current constitution (the same one that the Mubarak regime was based upon), setting up committees to “study” any proposed changes to the constitution (time-wasting), tasking the police force to “resume” their role in protecting the public that they were managing so admirably up until the beginning of the protests (partially sparked off as a result of discontent against the corruption and torture by the police), the lifting of the state of emergency when the security situation permits (the same as the previous stance of the Mubarak regime), along with a few other largely meaningless points concluded with all participants in the discussions saluting the loyal and patriotic stand that the military had taken.
It is quite clear that these offers are intended as part of what Springborg called “political jujitsu” in an attempt to exhaust the masses engaged in the protests while simultaneously promoting the image of the military, with the final card of the disposition of Mubarak – whether through symbolic means or otherwise – being pulled out at an opportune time to leave the Egyptian people feeling that they had achieved something. Springborg’s analysis is that though some Egyptians will congratulate themselves for deposing their dictator while others will realise they have been out-manoeuvred as it dawns upon them that the dictator’s regime has been left in place in the wake of his departure, ultimately the movement for change in Egypt would be fragmented and therefore ineffective for some time to come.
This may be correct, but there remain a few unknown variables which could still come into play such as the position of the mid-ranking officers in the military (though unlikely to be a factor) as well as that of the most important variable, the Egyptian people themselves. There remain protestors with clear demands such as the resignation of the entire regime including the newly appointed Vice President and Prime Minister, the dissolution of the ruling NDP, the lifting of the emergency law, a transitional government to be put in place and for a council be put together to write up a new constitution to be voted upon in a national referendum. If the protestors can unite sufficient support behind these fixed demands, inciting further popular unrest whilst refusing to engage in any negotiations until the first three are met, then the American government may find it more difficult to manage the process than currently appears to be the case.
But whatever the outcome, the real revolution has already taken place. It began in Tunisia before Egypt, and it is potentially much more dangerous to American interests in the region than the current crisis. That is the revolution in the minds of the masses, who for decades have had their political aspirations suppressed by a parade of dictators and monarchs whose rule has largely been maintained by a single pillar no longer standing – an all-encompassing fear of the regime. With that fear now conquered by a will to take their affairs back into their own hands, though it appears some are unclear as to what direction that future should take there is the possibility now that it can be discussed openly and decided upon by the people of the region themselves. It is this potential independence that will be exercising the American administration for years to come.
Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.