On Tuesday February 1st, the 82-year old Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with a hammer-swinging fist since 1981, announced that he would not run in September’s presidential election. He also pledged to “die on Egyptian soil,” sending the message that he would be retiring in Egypt, not into exile. The demonstrators rejected his belated concession.
The protesters’ demands have not wavered since the beginning of the uprising. They want an end to Mubarak’s tenure and have signaled that military generals are no longer welcome as governors of Egypt. These demands could not be plainer. They want the military to return to its barracks -- a place it has not been exclusively since 1952 – and this time for good.
Unsurprisingly, a political impasse has developed in Egypt between the two positions. In one scenario, Mubarak, with the unswerving support of the military and police, will leave honorably and in accordance with the existing constitutional framework. In the alternative scenario, the protesters will press on until Mubarak rides off into the sunset. With each side drawing lines in the concrete, the stage was set for confrontation. On February 1 the immovable governing object met the irresistible protesting force in street battles that, according to Egyptian state sources, left 3 people dead and some 750 people wounded.
Yet before Egypt’s increasingly militarizing state unleashed plainclothes police upon the peaceful demonstrators, much of the world looked to how the US administration would advise and guide its closest Arab ally. President Obama addressed the American audience shortly after Mubarak spoke on February 1 and reiterated many of the statements his Egyptian counterpart had just made. Both talked about transitions, and Mubarak seemingly agreed with the Obama-sent envoy’s nudge that he not run again in September. The importance of Obama’s update seemingly was to stress transition be sooner rather than later.
Obama also spoke to the protesters. He stated, “I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren.” This approach suggests that the Obama administration is taking a fair, principled stand against regional autocracy. Repeatedly, the administration has said it will not choose Egypt’s leader and has spoken about being responsive to the demands. Yet, these exchanges all transpire against the backdrop of the US-Egyptian relationship with its incestuous military relationship and over $55 billion of aid to the Egyptian state for the past 31 years. So is the US defending democracy and throwing its ally under the bus or is it resolutely standing by Mubarak and the military, which is the pro-American aspect of the Egyptian state?
The US is not being a neutral actor or a disinterested party to events thousands of miles away. Obama’s patience with Mubarak signals that, while he might be dispensable as a personality, the institution that he belongs to is not. By remaining in tune with Mubarak’s latest pronouncements, Washington has in effect ensured that Egypt’s next leader will have, at least early in his career, worn a military uniform. Hence, despite the calls for restraint with the use of violence, respecting the universal rights of citizens, and the stability/substantial reform/orderly transition, the administration has proven to be magnanimous in its rhetoric but selective and meaningfully intentional in where it puts its weight.
This is perhaps best seen in the two US meetings of note Tuesday in Cairo. While the US Ambassador spoke with Mohamad ElBaradei as part of “an active outreach to political and civil society reps,” the White House envoy consulted with Mubarak and the generals. While on the surface this implies balance and speaking to a full range of actors, it really reveals the US administration`s belief that the military will remain the pivotal actor after the crisis abates. The administration is essentially doubling down on the military remaining in control of the State. If this is the case and we see a president Omar Sulayman, Ahmad Shafiq, or Sami Enan, then the deal that have effectively existed since the consummation of the US-Egyptian relations would remain undisrupted.
The protesters remain the wild card in this scenario. There are no signs that the Egyptian military will order to fire on the demonstrators. Yet, it is not merely an imagined solidarity of Egyptians preventing a bloody massacre. It is also a business and power consideration. Given that the military has ruled from behind the curtain since 1952 and has been transformed into a business empire with holding companies that include foodstuffs, construction, and transportation (among other industries and enterprises), initiating a crackdown could produce their losing the state. While police officers change clothes and attack anti-Mubarak protesters using horse and camel-riding swing whips, Ismail Osman, the Spokesperson for the Army, reminded everyone today this can all be over if everyone goes home. But short of the protesters leaving, the only thing that can stop this is Mubarak’s departure.
Examining the American position towards Egypt for the past nine days, one recognizes three elements. The first is that violence is deplorable. The Administration has been absolutely clear about this. And, yet, despite Press Secretary Robert Gibbs calls for restraint, military leaders accepted the violence against the protestors to force the protesters to submit to their rule. While the Egyptian state has used force, Washington has not called them out for the violation.
Secondly, the Obama administration has repeatedly stressed its concern for the protesters` universal human rights. This includes the right to assemble, the right to information (the Internet and social networking sites) and the freedom to move. Here, again, despite utterly reasonable pronouncements, our ally in power has shunned advice and disregarded our guidance as the state shut down cellular networks and the Internet (the worst outage in the history of the Internet), and stopped the country’s trains to prevent people from traveling. Yet, when the US president addresses the press on the situation in Egypt, he repeatedly has failed to note these transgressions for the record.
The third element of the US policy has been the least fixed. Initially, this was captured by the initial comments by Secretary of State Clinton and Vice-Present Biden. Clinton initially called the Egyptian state stable despite the days of protest while Biden refused to refer to Mubarak as “a dictator.” This line lasted about 72 hours before the White House press secretary led a full-court press to demand for “substantial reform now.” While an upgrade from the earliest statements, this was desperately by the curve by years. If tanks are on the streets with protesters, then it is too late for immediate reform. The latest rendering of this evolving policy has been the “orderly transition” portion. The administration may have finally hit its stride. By settling on this term, it remains ambiguous enough that they still have failed to publicly signal an exact position that leaves Mubarak and his generals room to continue to squirm, hoping the protesters will go home, and the normal authoritarian order reconstitutes itself.
The US policy towards Egypt during this unprecedented time, it appears, is built for moving the target slowly and day-to-day but will look good in a post-hoc collection of cherry-picked quotations. When the uprising finishes, and if the military remains firmly in power – which appears to be the most likely option at this stage – American policy makers will feel they have weathered this storm successfully. Indeed, when stripped of the context, it probably will look good. But the reality of it will reveal another buried narrative. One that shows that there were a series of decisive and critical junctures when US government support could have amplified the protesters demands, shifted the balance of power in their direction, and set up a path of an arduous but more pluralistic future. And, yet, history will instead reveal at the most critical moments, that the US chose to stand conveniently by its military-backed ally and refused to make more reasonable, but albeit tough, decisions.
Indeed, if Tahrir were in Tehran, we most certainly would have witnessed a different approach and policy. But, alas, Tahrir square is in pro-US Egypt and reversing over thirty years of supporting autocracy in Egypt is simply too radical a solution. And, thus, anticipate the US government revert to supporting instability as patriotic Egyptians continue to send the message that they want a more inclusive political future.