Thursday, February 03, 2011

Twilight for the Pharaoh

Just a couple of weeks ago, we predicted that it would be the foreign policy challenges, and not the likely domestic legislative gridlock, which would draw the focus of the country, the President, the world, and this blog over the next 18 months. Already, this is coming true, though from a region of the world from which I had not anticipated the eruption of political crisis. The Arab world is suddenly a hotbed of independent political activity, and the center of the crisis is Egypt.

Fall of the Patriarch
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is 82 years old; he has been President for 30 years, since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He knows that this is the last roundup, but he wants the dignity of leaving on his own terms. Mubarak helped preserve stability and the peace with Israel in his first years, but he has far outstayed his time, ever more the military dictator, suppressing rights and taking and mistreating political prisoners.
The whirlwind has come up so swiftly, he has not had time to think about it. The concessions he has made have been half-measures, too small and too late. Yesterday, he allowed the forces which support and depend upon him, his law and order irregulars, to bring mayhem and disorder against the protestors, and specifically to target foreigners and journalists.
Today may be the climax of the rapidly building story. Friday is the day for rallies in their culture, and today the largest assembly yet was planned, including a march on the Presidential palace. I think from the violence we saw yesterday, and from the forces built up to defend his palace, it would be a mistake of catastrophic proportions to test his will. There would be intense resistance, possibly armed.

People Power again to the Test
The army, which has maintained a neutral stance, keeping apart the protestors and the pro-Mubarak forces on a few critical occasions, would be forced by such a march, and by clashes in the street, to make a choice.
We have seen this so many times. There are the times when the army has sided with the people, refused to shoot, protected them, as in the Philippines, in Romania, or at the Berlin Wall. There are the times when they have melted before the assembled people, as with the Shah's forces in Iran; or they have simply stood aside and let the thugs do their work, as in Iran just two years ago. Finally, there are the times when the army has accepted the awful orders from above and attacked their own people, as with Tienanmen Square.

I am not so confident how this will turn out; the attacks on the journalists have the feeling of trying to shut down the reporting of news for something very terrible that might follow. The protestors have felt their power in recent days, shutting down the country, pushing Mubarak so far that he has agreed to step down in a matter of months, but they want more: quite naturally, they feel that Mubarak can not be trusted to keep his word. Mubarak, for his part, feels he has given all he can.

Three Mistakes Often Seen from this Episode's Reporting
1) The worry about the ripple effects elsewhere is misplaced. Egypt is the main event; though it does not control the quantity of oil of some other Middle Eastern countries, what happens there is the most important result.
2) Belief that the protests are spontaneous and leaderless seems erroneous. There are leaders who will emerge if the effort to depose Mubarak is successful; they are laying low until that becomes more likely.
3) The notion that there are no models in the region for what Egypt faces politically. Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had it right in his interview last weekend with ABC's Christiane Amanpour (who is back in full glory, along with Anderson Cooper, on this story): Turkey is the model for what Egypt needs to do. The transition has been long and uneven in Turkey, the military has gotten involved too many times for its liking or for its people's, but a democratic, secular, Muslim-dominant state has emerged, and it is now prospering economically. The amazing thing is how few people realize it.

There is hope for an opposition coalition to end up governing Egypt, but it will take much more time than the protestors expect. So, the question is how to moderate their expectations without destroying their hope, or even exposing them to physical destruction. Now is the time for wise leaders to emerge to keep the place from exploding.

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