The much-anticipated speech by Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, in
which he was widely
to step down, has had the opposite of its intended effect: instead of
placating the protesters, it has enraged
them. Mubarak had only gotten halfway through his speech when the
crowd in Tahrir Square starting hooting and booing. They
held up their shoes – a gesture that our President Bush should
understand the meaning of – and the roar nearly drowned out the
speech (I was listening live on Al Jazeera). What
Mubarak has done is thrust his hand into the hornets’ nest – and now we
can expect the hornets to fly out, angry beyond measure….
Many Western commentators, falsely believing the tides of Egyptian
protest are ruled by the news cycle, expected the movement to die down.
protests swelled, with crowds in Cairo and across the country
achieving a heretofore unprecedented scale. Mubarak’s non-resignation
speech will further grow the protest movement: where this ends, nobody
knows, but the breakdown of Egyptian society is occurring at a rapid
pace – and this could provide a pretext for the military to come in, clamp
down, and “restore order.”
I live-blogged the Mubarak speech, which I transcribed, somewhat intermittently, but the faster I typed the more it seemed to me that this was a speech delivered by someone completely out of touch with reality. While he was going on about how many provisions of the “constitution” were going to be revised, how many committees he had set up, and how much he had sacrificed to “exhaust” himself for the good of the nation, millions were in the streets cursing the day he was born. To top it off, he said the emergency law will not be lifted until “order” is restored – and he was followed by vice president and torturer-in-chief Omar Suleiman telling people to go home.
My favorite line: “I feel your pain.”
Most significant line: “I will not leave this country until I am dead and buried in its soil.”
Most ominous line: “It will end with a situation where the youth will be the first victims.”
The fate of the nation is now in the hands of the military council, set up to secure the “transition”: if they issue a statement mollifying the people, reassuring them that Madman Mubarak is not at the helm, the crisis could be avoided. Failing this, the situation is open-ended, and increasingly dangerous. The very “orderly transition” that everyone seems to want is being up-ended. The only question now is whether this speech was a deliberate provocation, delivered as a prelude to a crackdown, or the last gasp of a doomed dictatorship.
It’s worth asking to what extent the US government – the power standing behind the dictator – was instrumental in fashioning Mubarak’s defiance. The Obama administration has been consistently calling for precisely what the regime has been calling for, which is an “orderly transition.” They have refused – rightly, in my view – to openly call for Mubarak’s ouster, but the real question is what they’ve been pushing for behind the scenes. In public, they’ve been supporting just what Mubarak announced: delegation of presidential powers to Suleiman, Washington’s reliable servitor.
In short, this administration has been tailing events, rather desperately, without making any friends either among the protesters or the Mubarak dead-enders. With CIA chieftain Leon Panetta’s testimony before Congress today [Thursday], to the effect that we should not necessarily expect Mubarak to step down, it appears that the administration was clued into their client’s stubborn defiance.
Tomorrow [Friday] is going to be a critical moment. The protesters are calling for a march on the presidential palace in Heliopolis – with some advancing on the palace even before Mubarak had finished his speech. That palace is being defended, not by the army, but by the presidential guard: this is significant, because it indicates a split in the military, with the regular army not being trusted to guard the seat of power. The guard is also ringed around the state television building, another hint of a split in the military.
All eyes are now on the army, because it’s not clear who is in control. Mubarak delegated his powers to Suleiman, the “vice president,” and he is unambiguously telling the protesters to “go home,” as he put it, and get back to work. We also have a statement from the “Supreme Military Council” to the effect that they will be in continuous session in order to take “necessary measures to protect the nation” and “support the legitimate demands of the people.”
So who’s in charge?
When you have to ask that question, you know that the days of the
regime are numbered. The military “Supreme Council” labeled their
no. 1,” with the clear implication that there will be more to come.
Will “communiqué no. 2” announce that Mubarak is on a plane to the
French Riviera, Suleiman is in “protective custody,” and a military
junta with a civilian face is at the helm?
What is clear is this: the protesters are becoming more assertive, moving
out of Tahrir Square, and moving toward government buildings such
as the presidential palace at Heliopolis and the state television
station. The anti-Mubarak student-led movement is forcing a showdown,
posing the question of state power pointblank, confident that the army
won’t shoot them down in the streets – and hopeful that, as the
Marxists used to say, they’ll “turn the guns around.”
The problem is that the Egyptian army is not a unitary organism. It
is divided into three basic forces: the
army, the “central
security forces,” i.e. secret
police, and the
Presidential Guard, which is tasked with defending government
buildings in Cairo and is directly responsible to Mubarak. A firefight
between army units commanded by the “Supreme Council” and Mubarak
loyalists of the Guard is a real possibility. If government buildings
in Cairo are besieged by the protesters, and the Guard opens fire as
the crowds surge forward, the fate of the revolution hangs in the
balance: will the army defend the people, or stand idly by as Mubarak’s
thugs exact their bloody revenge?
All signs point to a military takeover – in the name of “democracy,”
naturally — with the “Supreme Council” appending to itself an
appropriately civilian face, including Mohamed
ElBaradei and other elements of the traditional opposition. The
“patriotic democratic revolution” will be proclaimed in very short
order. Make no mistake, however: the military will retain control, as
it always has, well after the September “free” elections. With its longstanding ties
to the Pentagon, as the most loyal and most richly rewarded of our Arab
satraps, the Egyptian military will make sure the country stays in
America’s orbit. The Turkish example prefigures the Egyptian future –
that is, if everything goes according to plan.
Revolutions never go according to plan, however: that’s why they’re
… revolutionary. We are at what the smart alecks of the
world call a plastic moment, a strategic conjuncture, a critical
turning point. Because no one’s in charge. The Egyptian people could
rise up, as one, tomorrow, in their multi-millions, and crush Mubarak
and Mubarakism into dust, if they chose. This is the great fear that
all rulers, no matter how popular at the moment, have nightmares about,
a terror that pervades and motivates their every action while in
office: a sudden and massive uprising.
It is a fear rooted in history, and in the reality that their rule
is subject to the consent of the governed. If, as in the Soviet Union
and its satellites, the people suddenly stop obeying the government,
it’s all over for the rulers. When the army stops obeying orders, and
won’t fire on their own people, the jig is up.
I said a while back, is finished. His Norma
Desmond moment has come and gone – and it looks like he wasn’t all
that ready for his close up. The question now is what – or who – comes
after: and now is precisely the moment when we can expect the US effort
to influence events to go into overdrive. Whatever the Egyptian
military command decides, you can bet it isn’t without input from the
Pentagon, which is even now communicating with their Egyptian
counterparts. They are no doubt pushing the US line, which is, as the
State Department has made all too clear, that we’re
sticking with our man Suleiman. This is unacceptable to the crowds
in the street, however, and we’ll see how long it is before Washington
throws him overboard, too, just like they did Mubarak. And so let the
lesson of the Egyptian events go out to the rulers of Jordan, Saudi
Arabia, and the Gulf states: it doesn’t pay to be an American
By the way, there are US troops stationed in Egypt, some 900
in the Sinai peninsula. Perhaps they’ll be given the dubious honor
of escorting Mubarak out of the country. Or perhaps the Egyptian
dictator will meet a Ceausescu-like fate,
living up to his stated intention of dying on Egyptian soil.
Listening to Al
Jazeera’s live coverage, I heard commentator after commentator –
Egyptians – all wondering if Mubarak had gone crazy. The general view
among Egyptians seems to be that the dictator is living in a fantasy
world, disconnected from what’s happening in the country, unaware that
his time is over and so is his regime. This is madness of a peculiar
sort – the kind inflicted on anyone vested with inhuman power, a kind
of curse that goes with the “job” of dictator, or, indeed, any high
office. The Greeks called it hubris – a pride
so vast and unthinking that it offended the gods themselves. To the
ancients, hubris was the worst of sins, a curse that always ended in
the destruction of the sinner.
The lesson of Egypt is one that our global elites fail to learn at their peril, for they are cursed in the same way and for the same reason: hubris is their peculiar occupational hazard, and here in the West we are far from immune. Indeed, Washington, D.C. is particularly rife with this affliction, but I fear the infection is too advanced for even the strongest antibiotic to do much good.