February 02, 2011

Egypt's Popular Uprising

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The post-Tunisia eruption of massive protests in Egypt has felt tectonic in scope and wide-reaching geopolitical implications. Not since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran has a Middle Eastern event galvanized with such magnitude the Arab Middle East and, indeed, the world. While the situation remains tremendously fluid, we do know that the self-immolation of an under-employed 26-year old Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor has helped set off historic events of immense consequence. Now aided by hindsight, we can almost hear the collective wail of despair and frustration that shook mass swaths of the populace in cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and points beyond, namely, if relatively small Tunisia can rid herself of her ruler with such dispatch, surely the great, ancient nation of Egypt can accomplish the same?

And so the fuse of a spontaneous eruption against Mubarak was lit, with the fundamental drivers of course the increasingly sclerotic state of the Egyptian polity under his leadership, a demographic boom of youth fed up by chronic unemployment, corruption and cost of basic staples, as well as other currents of frustration to include some foreign policy-related grievances, all conspiring with the aforementioned national pride to set off this mighty conflagration.

The first victim this uprising has claimed is undoubtedly “tawrith”, or ‘inherited rule.’ Whether Gamal Mubarak is holed up somewhere in Egypt, or as far likelier and rumored in London, or indeed elsewhere, and despite his father’s reticence as of this hour to state unequivocally and publicly that his son will not stand in going forward elections, this is now a foregone conclusion. Country-by-country specifics differ, so this development is not necessarily a death knell say for Bashar Assad in Syria, but one can be well assured this development has been well noted, from Yemen to Syria, Libya to Jordan (with regard to this last, one sees implications even for monarchical systems, if somewhat more muted for the time being, and we might well include Saudi Arabia on this list while we're at it).

Beyond this, the long reign of Hosni Mubarak has effectively come to an end, with the only question as of this writing the timing of same, as well as whether this denouement will be able to occur without large-scale violence beyond that which we have witnessed so far. Will Mubarak’s departure be some eight months away, in so far-away September, in the context of the unbridled passions roiling great Egyptian metropolises such as Cairo? I highly doubt it, given the street’s incessant demands, depending: “the people want to depose Mubarak”, or “we will not leave, you should leave”, or more simply, “get out, get out”. It appears the genie is well out of the bottle and nothing less than an extremely high-profile defenestration I believe can quiet the passions unleashed.

However, one should not underestimate Mubarak, even if he looks increasingly tired, mournful, mummified even, now a thing of the past being bombarded by blaring megaphones, Facebook posts, and myriad Tweets in a brave New Middle East that is metamorphosing before our eyes in real time. His move to place Omar Suleiman as Vice President was important, not only in that it was his first appointment of a Vice President in memory (even if Suleiman is a loyalist, this implicitly signaled Gamal and tawrith were being sacrificed), but arguably more important, this was doubtless the result of urgent discussions with the military urging Mubarak to do same. The point, however, is that Mubarak is staying in the arena, and not in anyway yet signaling he is prepared to leave imminently.

Omar Suleiman, incidentally, is worthy of a few sentences here. I have seen depictions of him on the cable networks describing him as a “shadowy spymaster”, and such, a caricature which might get one’s inner Kremlinologist pulse aflutter, but is not a particularly apt description. More apropos, he is a bit sui generis in the Middle Eastern fabric, many nations in the region have relied on heavy-handed Interior Ministers over the years to tackle Islamists and ensure domestic ‘order’ in combating such threats (real, perceived, or manufactured), and Egypt of course has had its own cast of Interior Ministers over the years. Suleiman, however, ultimately oversaw not only this critical dossier as a kind of supra-Interior Minister, but also was the lynchpin and critical player in sensitive transnational discussions with players like the Israelis, Palestinians, and say Turks, particularly when major security issues/overlays were implicated (more so than the Foreign Ministry). In addition, of course, he played critical roles in his 'official' capacity dealing with intelligence issues. A very sophisticated player, he provides strategic comfort and a sense of continuity to key capitals, however alas, there is one major problem with all this: the street views him as little more than an alter ego to Mubarak (largely correctly) and he will not be ultimately acceptable to them as a successor (of which more below).

Another issue to flag, particularly as Suleiman--like Mubarak--is a man of the past, is that revolutions, even in this post-modern era, need leaders. The incipient Egyptian Revolution, if we might call it that, does not have a wholly convincing one as of yet, I’m afraid. As the scope of the spontaneous outbreak of massive protests that began a week or so back became clearer, both possible leaders and the street began to examine each other and make their respective real-time calculations. So far, there seems to be some coalescing around Mohamed el Baradei, faute de mieux, as we are all aware. However, this is a man who has spent little time in Egypt, is not particularly charismatic himself (and at 68, while notably younger than Mubarak, of reasonably advanced years), while in candor having come off as a bit overly removed at times. Notably, during the attempted million-man protest of a day or so back, el Baradei was a no-show (reportedly some in his camp had said there were security concerns, and he had been in the square on other days). As an Al Jazeera correspondent noted wryly the day of said particular protest, el Baradei was giving interviews from the “greenery of his garden”, rather than being “in the square.”

Regardless, a tacit agreement and coalescing around el Baredei seems afoot given the protesters likely intuit he is largely ‘acceptable’ to broad international constituencies, with his Nobel credentials and diplomatic demeanor (despite the tiffs with the US over Iraq that had the Boltons so peeved back in the day) and this also serves to facilitate the Muslim Brotherhood—at least to date—occupying and being satisfied with a more low-key profile. And if el Baraedi can act as a 'vessel' for various interests to merge towards a national unity government that minimizes the haunting specter of large-scale violence, he would have done a great service to his country indeed, particularly if the end result biases towards a convincingly democratic direction, rather than a new authoritarian situation, under whatever banner.

Given this back-drop, what is to be done? First, worth noting, I would say the Administration so far and generally should get high marks for its handling of this crisis. Emotions are running high, and sympathies during this historic pivot point are clearly on the side of the demonstrators, but to wholly throw Mubarak under the bus more forcefully than we have navigated to date I do not believe advisable, keeping in mind the context of a decades-long alliance (this assumes no Mubarak-authorized brutish, large-scale crackdown). Also the decision to dispatch Frank Wisner to Cairo (full disclosure: a close family friend), was an inspired one, not only because of his prior service as Ambassador to Egypt, but also given his overall diplomatic took-kit, which is highly impressive indeed (incidentally, and related to my post of a month or so ago, Wisner was Richard Holbrooke’s best friend). I would suggest the following actions as a matter of urgency:

1) Message in no uncertain terms that Government instigated provocations leading to greater violence as possible pretext for a crackdown could lead to a possible U.S. aid cut-off;

2) Request that Mubarak step down as very soon as possible more forcefully, however with assurances he be allowed to stay in Egypt, with the Army guaranteeing his security (important I think for the man’s own sense of his personal dignity in the context of his perceptions of long service to country);

3) Related, Hosni Mubarak makes an explicit, public statement that Gamal will not seek the Presidency going forward, a statement which would be echoed by his son in due course;

4) Have Suleiman take over the Presidency position, however expressly state this is for a transitory period through September, and that he himself will not run then, but is serving the nation during this delicate transition period given the highly grave challenges an Egyptian implosion or whole-scale breakdown in social cohesion would pose;

5) As further assurance Suleiman is viewed purely as a transitory figure, have key military actors form a coterie (read: not a junta) of spoke-persons through this period further highlighting Suleiman is more a vessel for the Army to ensure order, not that Suleiman is a new Pharaoh controlling the Army; and

6) Focus very intently on helping move towards a national unity type Government in September that includes all key political factions, not only Western-leading ‘reformists’, but also the Muslim Brotherhood (this must include on an urgent basis economic reforms, both emergency relief and more structural).

Regarding this last, if it was not clear before, and if the U.S. and international community might better assist the Egyptians in avoiding anarchic break-down scenarios, we must spend the next months better assessing the Brotherhood (possible schisms between older and younger members, differentiation among the Egyptian vs other regional variants, willingness to respect the Camp David Accords, etc) with a view toward actively ensuring American diplomats have a far better sense of the movement, so deeply entrenched in the fabric of Egyptian life, though to what extent somewhat overstated given the rich and diverse Egyptian polity. Regardless, it means in this post-authoritarian Middle East that apparently is in the making (or so we hope, lest new dictators loom!), we will need to reach out to new players taking on a more prominent role, which most assuredly will include Islamists of various stripes, but we must be careful to differentiate them and not ‘cry Mullah’, 'Iran ‘79’ and/or ‘al Qaeda-lite’ each time they take on greater political power.

Last, a plea for humility. We have seen the usual suspects gripe and moan that ‘we should have supported Person X more’, or ‘Who Lost Egypt?’, or still, ‘See, Bush was Right!’, and so on. This is mostly clap-trap from journalistic, think-tank and other like-situated congeries busily settling old grudges and trotting out tired stereotyped narratives that, worth noting, tend to grossly overstate the impact the U.S. can or cannot really have amidst fast-moving historical currents. The bottom line is events underway in Egypt are epochal and manifestly of gigantic implication, bigger than any one Administration, or whether we prodded Mubarak the right amount on say the Ayman Nour issue a few years back (as Nour himself noted from jail during the entire Condoleezza Rice ‘will she, won’t she' saga: “I pay the price when [Rice] speaks [of me], and I pay the price when she doesn't”), and regardless, certainly bigger than increasingly discredited mastheads ascribing blame for perceived missteps, by say, a heartlessly overly 'realist' Obama.

The bottom line is that history is in the making, and it is being made by Egyptians, in the main, and more quickly than we likely realize now. Put simply, we have less power to influence events than some of us might hope, and more should reckon with this reality, as well somewhat related, the edict: 'first, do no harm'. Meantime, however, my 1-6 above are meant to distill some possible policy recommendations I think the US Government—via the President, Secretary of State, Frank Wisner, our Ambassador on the ground—among doubtless many others—should be assiduously pursuing, both in public and private fora, and with a real sense of urgency, if in calibrated manner given this is such a delicate period littered with varied mine-fields.

Posted by Gregory at 01:30 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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