Into Egypt's Uncharted Territory

by Hesham Sallam , Joshua Stacher , Chris Toensing | published February 1, 2011

Amidst the monumental Egyptian popular uprising of 2011, Plan A for the Egyptian regime and the Obama administration was for Husni Mubarak to remain president of Egypt indefinitely. They have now moved on to Plan B.

It was clear that Mubarak was no longer calling the shots before his broadcast statement on February 1, in which he promised to step down in September. The previous evening, it was not he but his newly named vice president, ‘Umar Sulayman, who appeared on state television to announce the latest government measures, chiefly an offer to negotiate with opposition figures over the direction of a political transition. The opposition -- that is, the heads of the various half-dead parties that the regime has allowed to exist, though not to organize, for the last three decades -- wisely declined. They said they would negotiate, but not until Mubarak had resigned the presidency and left the country. In this move, they relied upon the staying power of the crowds in Cairo’s main Tahrir Square and cities and towns across the country, which, with ups and downs in the number of participants, have pressed that same demand for seven days and counting. The “march of millions” on February 1 would seem to have sealed the octogenarian dictator’s fate.

With Plan A obsolete, Plan B for the regime and its backers in Washington is to ride out the uprising with their basic authoritarian prerogatives intact. Sulayman and his entourage intend to stage an “orderly, peaceful transition” (to use the Obama administration’s phrase) from the reign of one arbitrary autocrat to another, adorned with the trappings of more liberal democracy. They have offered up Mubarak as a sacrificial lamb, as they did Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli and before him Ahmad ‘Izz, the ruling-party bigwig and chief crony of Mubarak’s son and presumptive heir Gamal. The army, thus far, is solidly behind them, its protestations of sympathy with the people to the contrary. The wild card, therefore, remains the exuberantly angry crowds in Egypt’s streets, who received Mubarak’s address with scorn. The outcome of their massive uprising hangs in the balance.

The Agility of the Crowds

It is difficult to know whether to characterize the course of events to date as an early-stage revolution or a sort of half-coup. Perhaps both descriptions are apt.

The mainstream media has emphasized the emotions -- fury at the regime, joy at the prospect of change -- that appear to be driving the tremendous protests in Egypt’s streets. But there is reason to believe that the protesters’ strategy and tactics are quite rational as well. Protest leaders have been careful to direct their rage at Husni Mubarak and his entourage, rather than at the institutions of the Egyptian state, particularly the military. They have displayed a strong commitment to avoid physical clashes with the armed forces, though not with the detested police, and courted the military with conciliatory slogans. “The people and the army are one hand,” many protesters have chanted. The demonstrators realize that it will be difficult to drive a wedge between the political decision makers and the military, in which the regime figures have served. But they also know that provoking the army would only deepen the officers’ interest in preserving Mubarak’s presidency or that of a comparably autocratic successor. In other words, as diffuse as they may appear, the protests have walked the fine line between forceful opposition to Mubarak and avoidance of antagonizing military institutions that have not given up on the current order just yet.

The protesters have remained unified and uncompromising in the position that Mubarak must go immediately. This consistent stance reflects their awareness that negotiations between Mubarak and the formal opposition leaders in political parties (and, for that matter, the Muslim Brothers) would put them back at square one: an Egypt in which Mubarak picks and chooses partners from among his opponents, and imposes so-called reforms that only tighten his grip on power. Equally important, they realize that negotiations before Mubarak steps down would effectively put the whole initiative in the hands of the traditional opposition leaders, who have a long record of selling out the cause of transformative reform for the sake of narrow personal and ideological agendas. Such deals could be cut before any permanent concessions from the regime were secured.

Throughout the wave of protests, the youth coordinating the efforts, notably the April 6 movement, have offered opposition leaders no blank checks. There was only guarded enthusiasm, for instance, when Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency head, announced that he is ready to mediate on their behalf. Besides protecting their movement from outside opportunism, the protesters have steered it away from the ideological differences that have fragmented organized opposition political activity in the past. Avoiding and sometimes suppressing religious slogans, the demonstrations have maintained an image as a national uprising of patriotic Egyptians -- nothing more and nothing less. They have also eschewed symbolism that would tie them to a particular political or ideological trend. This keen strategic sense and tactical agility has stymied the regime’s effort to discredit the uprising by dismissing it as an “Islamist conspiracy” to overthrow the regime and repress Egypt’s religious minorities. Nor can the demands of the protesters be held hostage to the debilitating ideological and personal spats among the organized opposition. And, crucially, the squares are full of Egyptians of all ages and social classes: Workers at key factories, including in Suez, location of perhaps the fiercest street fights between protesters and police, have gone on strikes they say will last until Mubarak abdicates.

The Regime’s Road Back

The other half of the story, however, is the clear regime manipulation of both the situation on the ground and the narratives disseminated about it. Mainstream media coverage, especially in the United States, has been filled with misleading tales. With help from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-Israel commentators, the regime has distracted many outlets with the arrant nonsense that the popular protests presage a takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brothers, yes, are the largest and best-organized political force in the country, and their cadres are indeed present among the crowds, even serving as marshals in places. But the Islamist party was late to join the protest movement, having declined to endorse the January 25 Police Day gatherings that inaugurated it, and has subsequently made no attempt to lead it or shape its discourse. Tellingly, the Brothers endorsed a secular figure, ElBaradei, as a possible interlocutor between the protesters and the regime. Speculation about the Brothers’ future role is just that -- speculation.

The looting and random shootings that Mubarak ascribes to unnamed “political forces pouring oil on the fire” are by all credible accounts the work of the regime’s own security services, some of whom did not even bother to don civilian costume. On the evening of January 28, day of the hugest demonstrations until the “march of millions,” the security services and police (even traffic cops) disappeared from their outposts, many of which, in any case, had been torched by bands of protesters. Only the Interior Ministry headquarters itself remained staffed, at least by snipers who eyewitnesses and doctors say shot dead tens of unarmed youths agitating outside for the regime’s downfall. Meanwhile, gangs of regime-recruited thugs (baltagiyya) roved around Cairo and other cities, smashing shop windows, stealing goods and terrorizing passersby. Human Rights Watch adds that the multiple prison breaks reported on the same evening are “unexplainable” without state security complicity. The clear goal of the baltagiyya and jail emptying operations was to frighten protesters into hurrying home to protect their families. No less important an end was to scare the other mass of Egyptians who are sitting somewhat uneasily at home and who the regime hopes might turn on the uprising. There is anecdotal evidence from reporters in Cairo and Egyptian-Americans calling relatives that the operation was at least partly successful in this aim. Part of Plan B, indeed, rests on the hope that relatively comfortable Egyptian citizens will soon chafe at the shortages of food, gasoline and commercial goods, as well as the total disruption of everyday business. Egypt faces a “choice between chaos and order,” Mubarak reminded this audience on February 1. Train service was canceled countrywide that morning to underscore his point in advance.

The role of the army is perhaps the most poorly interpreted aspect of the events. As soon as the tanks rumbled into Tahrir Square to a rousing popular welcome, much of the reporting has uncritically relayed the army’s self-presentation that “we are with the people.” On January 31, the military brass underlined this message by dubbing the protesters’ demands “legitimate” and vowing not to shoot at them as they continue to shout in the streets. In fact, and as should be expected, the army is with the most expedient route to restoring the stability that it and its Washington business partners crave -- and that road is the one laid out by Mubarak’s speech.

The president will stay in office until September, date of the previously scheduled presidential contest. In the meantime, he will pick up the pace of “reform,” offering amendments to Articles 76 and 77 of the Egyptian constitution, which concern the rules for running for president. At present, Article 76 stipulates that candidates must be members of the highest council of existing parties that are “legal” (not the Muslim Brothers, in other words). This provision, one can expect, will be altered to allow Sulayman or fellow generals, who cannot belong to political parties at present, to throw their beaked caps into the ring. Article 77, governing presidential term limits, will likely be revised in order to impose such a limit (it presently permits the chief executive to run as many times as he pleases). Such was the sole substantive concession in the speech.

The widely rumored split between the army and the Interior Ministry forces is very likely overblown. In fact, for all practical purposes, it appears thus far confined to the regime’s decision to part with al-‘Adli, who as interior minister supervised the most passionately hated elements of the apparatus -- those that torture Egyptian political prisoners -- and is thus an obvious scapegoat. On January 31, the police and security services that had vanished some two days earlier reappeared with seemingly equal magic, their discipline intact, ready to reassure anxious property owners of the restoration of law and order. And there were very few actual confrontations between the army and the Interior Ministry forces even before the police again showed their faces. An Associated Press story on the January 29-30 showdown at the Interior Ministry building in downtown Cairo is revealing: At one point, tanks positioned themselves between the protesters and the snipers, even creeping forward while demonstrators took shelter behind them, but ignoring the protesters’ pleas to shoot back.

Dissembling Kingmaker

The Obama administration has disavowed any role in the ongoing drama. Its phalanx of proxy spokespeople deployed in the waning days of January to assert repeatedly that “it’s the Egyptian people’s time.” Some normally astute observers have published articles arguing that the US could not exercise any influence in Cairo at this stage, even if it wanted to. The events of February 1, however, showed that Washington is entirely seized of the matter, despite its public shrugs in preceding days. As journalists waited for the “march of millions” to assemble, news broke that Frank Wisner, US ambassador to Egypt from 1986 to 1991, had disembarked at the airport and would meet with top regime figures, including Mubarak himself, to “nudge” the dictator into earlier-than-desired retirement. In Egyptian elite circles, Wisner is regarded fondly. Following his diplomatic service, Wisner went to work for insurance giant AIG, among other major corporations, and his business ties in Egypt are reputed to be considerable. The Obama administration’s priorities are clear: While the current US ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was conducting “active outreach to political and civil society representatives,” including a parley with ElBaradei, the White House’s special envoy was breaking bread with the generals.

But it was President Barack Obama himself who shed the brightest light upon the US attitude when he gave yet another special briefing to the American public about Egypt little more than an hour after Mubarak spoke. As in his remarks on January 28, he expressed the requisite admiration for the protesters’ perseverance, before stating that he had spoken by telephone with Mubarak to convey his “belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.” The Washington Post headlined its initial story on Obama’s comments, “Mubarak Move Disappoints Obama Administration,” but a careful parsing of both presidential pronouncements shows no actual difference between them. The Egyptian regime says it wants “an orderly, peaceful transition,” whose meaning is contained in the proposed constitutional amendments. And the transition has begun, Mubarak said, citing his January 28 dissolution of the cabinet. The Obama administration has yet to lay down a concrete marker that affords the Egyptian regime no room for resuming its same old faux democratic game.

Washington’s mightiest leverage, should it care to demonstrate its alleged impatience, is the annual US aid package to Egypt. According to the Congressional Research Service, total aid to Egypt has averaged $2 billion annually since 1979, the year of the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Though overall US assistance has declined over the last decade, military aid has held steady since 1983 at approximately $1.3 billion. This assistance is Foreign Military Financing, a program whose terms dictate that the recipient nation (unless it happens to be Israel) must spend the package’s full dollar value on American-manufactured weaponry. (Israel can spend a portion in its own armories.) An additional $1.558 billion, most of it military aid, has been requested for Egypt in the 2011 appropriations. On January 28, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs raised the hopes of Egyptian democracy advocates by hinting that the package could be trimmed, but there has been no reiteration since then.

“Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders,” Obama continued in his response to Mubarak’s laying out of Plan B. Perhaps it is not important to Washington, in the end, who assumes the Egyptian presidency, as long as this person is prepared to safeguard the key elements of the US-Egyptian bilateral relationship. But Obama’s message is nevertheless disingenuous, for his administration has at least played at playing kingmaker. By declining to name its candidate, the White House in effect designates Sulayman or another agent of continuity.

The Problems with Plan B

Such is the Egyptian regime’s Plan B for this unprecedented crisis in its rule: a bet that time-tested methods of dividing and coopting opposition, persecuting the hard-core remainder, intimidating the wider population and buying time will allow it to survive, without its figurehead but otherwise whole. Sulayman and the army have carried out their half-coup, deposing the section of the regime centered on Gamal Mubarak that hoped to return hereditary succession to the land of the Nile. The essential character of the regime, however, remains the same and it gives off every sign of self-confidence looking ahead.

There are, however, deep and possibly insoluble problems with Plan B. First, of course, is the fact that Mubarak’s pledge to step down, while cheering for the crowds in the streets, does not address the fundamental demand of the uprising. Sulayman and his crew will be exceedingly reluctant to accede to Mubarak’s early ouster, in part because of the nearly unshakable personal loyalty of Egyptian military officers to each other, and in part because a Tunisian reprise would make it appear their hand was forced. Such a scenario would likely embolden at least some segments of the pro-democracy movement to press on with their more programmatic demands. It would greatly unnerve other Arab rulers, who found the departure of Tunisia’s ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali difficult enough to swallow, and would be horrified to see that repeated in the Arab world’s most populous country. In his February 1 speech, Mubarak strove to leave an impression of temporarily interrupted normalcy, a notion that all will shortly return to the way it has been.

What will the regime do, therefore, if the masses of protesters continue to call upon Mubarak to vacate the presidential palace? Every indication is that they will, though their level of energy going forward is uncertain. For all its backing of the regime so far, the army likely cannot fire upon the demonstrating crowds if the regime judges that necessary. The top brass has sworn not to; the Pentagon has echoed the White House in urging adherence to that policy; and, most importantly, the first bullet will shatter the shows of solidarity between the soldiers and the pro-democracy movement, as well as the army’s honored place in Egyptian political culture. From there, the losses will become material -- the institution’s central political role and extensive stakes in the economy will be in severe jeopardy. The crowds, in strategic terms, therefore have an ace in the hole.

A more technical, but also nettlesome problem in the regime’s plan is the proposed constitutional amendments. Mubarak already altered Article 76 in 2005, and again in 2007, to pave the way for the accession of his son Gamal to the throne. Those experiences, which were also marketed as democratic reforms, left a bitter taste in the mouths of all politically conscious Egyptians. To attempt this maneuver again presupposes a trust between state and citizenry that has long since dissolved. The entity charged with proposing the new changes, which would need approval in a popular plebiscite, is a parliament stocked by the most fraudulent legislative elections in Egypt’s modern history. Ninety-three percent of the seats are held by members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and in the post-January 28 cabinet the minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs is none other than Mufid Shihab, known to Egyptians as “the tailor” for his ingenuity in subverting meaningful reform through legal processes. While amending Article 77 has been an opposition demand for years, this measure is too little, too late to placate a country in open rebellion.

It is not clear if the regime appreciates the depth of its quandary. Plan B is achievable in theory, but the path to the regime’s objectives is strewn with obstacles that will be hard to avoid. To be sure, the regime is practiced at setting the agenda, often with recourse to measures as cynical as the unleashing of the baltagiyya. But Egypt has entered uncharted political territory, where the opposition -- and the untamed street-level opposition at that -- holds significant initiative of its own. The regime has never been encountered such a wily opponent. “History will judge me,” Mubarak intoned as he delivered the valediction for his presidential candidacy. Indeed it will, though his annals are already in their last chapter. The full history of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, however, has yet to be forged.

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