Since Egypt is essentially a military dictatorship, we were fearing all along that the most likely outcome would be that sooner or later the military would just sacrifice Mubarak and try to get on with business as usual. We’re not alone..
Mubarak is on his way out. But the regime is still very much in power
After a week in the headlights, the regime is showing signs of regaining its nerve and assembling a strategy to overcome its perilous predicament. Whether it can work is another matter.
The survival plan centres on Omar Suleiman, who is head of intelligence, Mubarak’s close confidant, and the newly installed vice-president. Right now Suleiman is the most powerful man in Egypt, backed by the military (from which he hails), the security apparatus, and a frightened ruling elite hoping to salvage something from the wreckage.
Suleiman is, in effect, heading a junta of former or acting military officers. Mubarak has been reduced to a figurehead, sheltering behind this clique. But they will not humiliate him. There will be no ignominious flight to Saudi Arabia, like that of Tunisia’s deposed president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Mubarak’s pride won’t allow it; the military’s pride won’t allow it. As they see it, the honour of the nation demands no less. They will insist on a dignified departure for a man who, for all his faults, led Egypt through war and peace into the modern era.
The army’s pledge not to use violence against peaceful protesters was a canny political move with Suleiman’s fingerprints all over it. If the armed forces stick to that vow, it could help de-escalate the crisis – especially if Mubarak’s television announcement is enough to satisfy most of the demonstrators that they have achieved a signal victory.
The renunciation of force will also play well in the White House and the US media. It meets one of the key concerns voiced by Barack Obama.
What the army spokesman meant when he said the military recognised the “legitimacy” of the protesters’ demands is open to interpretation, no doubt deliberately. Probably, it was their way of appearing reasonable and open to negotiation. Part of Suleiman’s plan is immediate talks with the opposition, however defined. Again, this posture will reduce western pressure on the regime.
The opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei threw a spanner in the works, insisting Mubarak must leave Egypt before any talks could start. “There can be dialogue, but it has to come after the demands of the people are met and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves,” he said. The Muslim Brotherhood took a similar position. They both may now have to reconsider.
Mubarak’s fate aside, the regime may also be hoping that recent lawlessness and looting will convince people, particularly Cairo’s middle-class, that revolution is too risky and that the protesters have made their point. Likewise, rising food and fuel prices, shortages, lost earnings, closed businesses, falling exports and reduced tourism caused by the unrest will have a growing impact on working people if they persist with street action.
In dealing with those who reject Mubarak’s move as insufficient, the regime’s strategy may be to wait them out, to hope that, in time, the fervour and size of the protests will abate – that they will run out of steam.
On the political front, the regime can count on continuing support from conservative Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia, from Libya, Algeria and others. None has an interest in encouraging revolution.
Turkey’s suggestion earlier in the day that the crisis be resolved through the ballot box offered some prescient comfort to the regime. Israel is also pressing European countries to do all they can to ensure a stable and friendly Egyptian government, its main Arab ally.
US support is more problematic, as Obama performs an awkward balancing act. He has sent a veteran envoy, Frank Wisner, to Cairo to see what can be rescued. But there will be relief in Washington that the seemingly immovable Mubarak has finally shifted ground and if Suleiman plays his cards well, Washington may rally round a regime-led transition.
A set timetable for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections, possibly this autumn, coinciding with the end of Mubarak’s term in September, under some form of international or independent supervision, may soon be forthcoming – another way for the regime to escape the morass.
This will require a lot of negotiating with opposition parties. Mubarak could then hand over power in the normal way (though it would be abnormal for Egypt). The supposed presidential ambitions of his son, Gamal, must now be considered defunct. Just how honest and open new elections might be, once pressure on the streets has reduced, is questionable. Whether they would usher in a truly new era for Egypt is highly doubtful. At this historic moment, there remains all to play for. But through history, the fate of revolutions is to be hijacked. Egyptians will hope they don’t get fooled again.