The US cannot - and should not - pick Egypt's next leader, but it should do everything it can to ensure that Egyptians get a real opportunity to do so.
Read the entire column.
My latest column for Gulf News looks at the rapidly changing situation in Egypt and the vexing question of what the US ought to do about it.
The US cannot - and should not - pick Egypt's next leader, but it should do everything it can to ensure that Egyptians get a real opportunity to do so.
Read the entire column.
The talk from Cairo today has been about the modalities of moving Hosni Mubarak aside. This ignores (for the moment) the fact that he clearly has no intention of going anywhere, though the underlying assumption is that the military can push him out if and when they really want to. Washington, worrisomely, seems over the last 24 hours to have shifted its attitude a bit. Though the Obama administration never explicitly called for Mubarak to resign the Egyptian presidency it certainly came close to doing so at several points this week. Now the message from Washington and other Western capitals seems to be that change needs to start now – but it’s OK if Mubarak stays around to oversee it.
The reasons behind this lie in the Egyptian constitution, and it is worth taking a little time here to look at exactly what that document says. This link will allow you to download an English-language translation of Egypt’s constitution. The website in question is run by the Electoral Knowledge Network, but the pdf document it links to is the Egyptian government’s official translation of the Arabic original.
As more than a few commentators have noted in recent weeks, Egypt’s succession procedures are very different from what people in the United States are accustomed to (see especially this analysis by Nathan Brown at Foreign Policy). The most important factor is this: if the president resigns or dies, newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman does not become president. Instead, the office passes temporarily to the speaker of parliament, a rather colorless government hack named Fathi Surour. Surour would be acting president for sixty days, at the end of which period an election would have to be held with the winner getting a full six-year term in the Presidential Palace. Surour, as Acting President, would not be eligible to be a candidate in this election.
This procedure mirrors the one that brought Mubarak to power in the first place. Back in 1981 Egyptian presidents were elected by parliament rather than by a popular vote. When Sadat was assassinated the then-speaker of parliament became Acting President until the parliament could pick a new leader. That Mubarak, Sadat’s vice president and a hero of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, would be that choice was never seriously in doubt since the People’s Assembly (as the parliament is known) then, as now, was largely a rubber-stamp body.
Fast-forward to 2011, however, and this scenario sets up a lot of unpleasant possibilities. This is especially the case because, in 2005, Mubarak had the Assembly pass several amendments to the constitution. These amendments established direct presidential elections, but were also explicitly designed to ensure that no serious candidate could run against Mubarak or his anointed successor (i.e. his son Gamal) in any future presidential election. See the constitution’s insanely-detailed Article 76 for the details. A companion amendment (Article 77) removed the term limits that had heretofore applied (at least theoretically) to the Egyptian presidency. Mubarak clearly is well aware that these two articles are particular sore points with his critics: when he went on TV last week to insist he would stay but, at the same time, to promise reform he singled out Articles 76 & 77 of the constitution as things that need changing.
So the problem with the constitution as it stands is this: if Mubarak resigns he triggers a rushed election for which the opposition is not prepared and in which only candidates approved by his cronies can run. Moreover, constitutional changes need to be enacted by the People’s Assembly, and it is difficult to imagine this group of government hacks, on their own initiative, making any moves to lessen what little power they have.
There are, however, ways around this problem. Everything I have just described is contingent on the president resigning. Article 82 of the constitution, however, allows the President to “delegate his powers to a vice president” if “on account of any temporary obstacle the President of the Republic is unable to carry out his functions.”
Note that phrase: “a vice president”, not “the vice president.” While Mubarak had, until last week, governed without any vice president at all the constitution allows him to appoint, believe it or not, as many VP’s as he may wish to have. If he then steps aside due to a “temporary obstacle” he can choose the VP to whom he delegates his powers.
A VP serving as Acting President does not have the authority to dissolve parliament, but this issue is easily dealt with by having Mubarak issue such a decree immediately before signing over his powers.
Thus, a plausible scenario emerges: one that allows Mubarak to exit with some dignity, preserves the army’s role in the transition (let’s be honest: Mubarak will only go if the military pushes him out, and that will only happen if the military is assured that its own place in society is secure) but, at the same time, opens a path for true democracy:
Step 1: Mubarak appoints another vice president – perhaps Mohammed Elbaraedi. Even better: he even appoints two new VPs (perhaps ElBaraedi and someone representing the business community).
Step 2: Mubarak dissolves parliament – an act that requires new elections after two months.
Step 3: Mubarak, invoking article 82, transfers his powers to one of the new vice presidents. The new acting president, Omar Suleiman and our notional third vice president become a temporary ruling council. They preside over new parliamentary elections.
Note that all three of these steps can be done simultaneously: just sign the three relevant documents in the correct order.
Step 4: The new parliament rewrites Article 76 to ensure that a free and fair election can take place in September. Meanwhile the three-person ‘Presidential Council’ outlined above runs the country through the summer and early fall.
My point here is that Mubarak’s grotesque, undemocratic constitution is being presented in a number of western accounts as an insurmountable obstacle to democratic reform. An argument is emerging in both Washington and Cairo that Mubarak or Omar Suleiman needs to remain in charge of the country for at least the next several months if reform is to take place within a legal framework (which, I think we can all agree, is probably better than the army formally taking over and starting from scratch). This is not true. The constitution as it stands is a dictator’s manifesto – but a way forward does exist; one that takes Egypt toward the democracy and does so by rule of law. If, of course, the President can first be made to see that his position is no longer tenable.
It is clear that on one level the Mubarak regime has succeeded: by harassing reporters, arresting them, beating them and generally working to keep them away from Tahrir Square it has dramatically curtailed the coverage of events in Cairo. By most accounts today’s rally was among the largest yet, and almost completely peaceful. Yet, here in the United States at least, the wall-to-wall coverage was gone, and you had to be watching a lot of Egypt news to get to a deeper reality: the rally in the Square was huge and inspiring, but bad stuff continued to happen only a few blocks away. Not as bad as yesterday, but bad nonetheless.
After two days of watching the carnage the Egyptian army stepped in today to serve as a security force. But, as Anderson Cooper noted grimly on CNN this evening, while it is right to praise the military for maintaining order in the square one must wonder why they carefully search anti-government demonstrators but not the ‘pro-government’ ones nearby.
To my mind, the most telling quote of the day comes from a New York Times story that was mainly about Thursday’s clashes in Tahrir Square:
“If we can’t bring this to an end, we’re going to all be in the slammer by June,” said Murad Mohsen, a doctor treating the wounded at a makeshift clinic near barricades.
That, I think, captures the real danger here. The protestors have passed the point of no return.
Mubarak’s self-preservation plan seems reasonably clear: his thugs cause violence, which state-controlled media blames on foreign spies. Meanwhile, the army stays superficially neutral (it was telling that when the defense minister came to the Square to inspect troops today he was reportedly well-received by the crowd, but told some of the protestors that what they are doing is “against Egypt”) and waits for the proper moment to step in to “restore order”. The government has promised to investigate and punish those responsible for the violence, but you can be assured that if that ever happens it will be the anti-government demonstrators who wind up in prison, not their persecutors. Mubarak stays on to oversee yet another round of superficial, mainly meaningless, reforms and nothing much changes.
Will this work? It is worth remembering that as dramatic and inspiring as the last two weeks have been the crowds in the streets represent, at best, about 5% of Egypt’s population. We can be sure that for every person marching in Cairo, Alexandria or Suez there are many others who dare not march but fully agree with them. There are also, however, many people who are invested in the regime and have a stake in seeing it continue. The fact that the thugs who caused most of this week’s violence were paid does not mean that they all had to have their arms twisted to do it.
Beyond that, Omar Suleiman’s televised call on the demonstrators to go home quietly, secure in the knowledge that they have made their point and their demands have been met will strike a chord with more than a few Egyptians, as ludicrous as it may sound to those of us watching from afar. It appeals to two very Egyptian cultural traits: a desire to calm emotions and diffuse conflict by saying ‘Hey, it’s OK. No problem. Maalesh. Everything’s good’, and a belief that people should be allowed to save face whenever possible. It is notable that a number of older demonstrators interviewed over the last day or two have been receptive to the idea that Mubarak should be allowed to finish his term because it is the dignified thing to do, granted his decades of service to the country.
Beyond that, it is important to remember that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Egyptians are illiterate and very poor. What these people know of the world they get mostly from state TV. And what has state TV been showing? This report from the respected blogger/activist known as Sandmonkey is both depressing and chilling:
In the meantime, State-owned and affiliated TV channels were showing coverage of Peaceful Mubarak Protests all over Egypt and showing recorded footage of Tahrir Square protest from the night before and claiming it's the situation there at the moment. Hundreds of calls by public figures and actors started calling the channels saying that they are with Mubarak, and that he is our Father and we should support him on the road to democracy. A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the US and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews. She claimed that AlJazeera is lying, and that the only people in Tahrir square now were Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos. For those of you who are counting this is an American-Israeli-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian-Hamas conspiracy. Imagine that. And MANY PEOPLE BOUGHT IT. I recall telling a friend of mine that the only good thing about what happened today was that it made clear to us who were the idiots amongst our friends. Now we know.
Click here to read Sandmonkey’s entire post.
Some significant things did change today – the appearance of Arab League Secretary General (and former Egyptian Foreign Minister) Amr Moussa in the Square Friday may prove to be a turning point – a first step in the establishment moving to ease Mubarak out of the presidential palace (or maybe not – Moussa has long been known as Egypt’s most glaringly ambitious political figure). Tantawi’s visit to the Square, despite that ominous exchange with a protestor, will be seen by many as a subtle nod toward the anti-government forces by one of the few people with the power to force Mubarak out.
But the bottom line remains: the regime, for now at least, plans to stay. It believes it can tell enough lies, intimidate enough people and shut down the economy to such an extent that, in the end, most of the anti-government forces will give up. It will wait out the demonstrators and exact its revenge after the foreign reporters go home. The terrible truth is, this just might work.
Anchor Fergus Nicoll cited MideastAnalysis.com this morning on the BBC World Service's The World Today program. The reference came during his interview with Dr. Nadeem Shehadeh of Chatham House - approximately 3:40 into the following clip.
It will be dawn in Cairo soon, and even from a distance of 6000 miles I am seized with a deep sense of foreboding.
When I lived in Cairo I quickly learned that an element of every trip home to the United States was answering the question: “what kind of government do they have over there?”
My stock answer to this was: “a military dictatorship, but a relatively benign one as these things go.” It was not, I’d explain, Pinochet’s Chile, Argentina under the colonels or Saddam’s Iraq – an all-encompassing terror state. The government wasn’t nice, but it did not engage in brutality on that scale.
Now, I’m not so sure. Anyone who has known Egypt over the last two decades will tell you that the country has seen an authoritarian drift over the past ten or 15 years. Max Rodenbeck wrote of this trend more than a dozen years ago in the final pages of his excellent book Cairo: The City Victorious, when he considered, with obvious disappointment, a city that had become harder-edged than the one he had known for so many years.
It retrospect it may simply be that what, until now, separated Mubarak from his more notorious dictatorial brethren is that he has managed to go nearly 30 years without having to really put his foot down.
I keep telling myself that this is not the Egypt I know. Then, however, I remind myself that in some ways, actually, it is. Way back in 1994 two journalist friends and I went to Cairo’s newly built 100,000-seat soccer stadium to watch a World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Zimbabwe. Entering the stadium we noted with some interest that it was surrounded by seven, yes seven, security fences. “Well,” one of my colleagues remarked, “now we know what they plan to do with all the fundis (i.e. Islamic fundamentalists) when the uprising comes.”
As for the nationalistic paranoia the government has unleashed against foreign journalists and human rights workers, that, too, has been a fixture of Egyptian life for decades. Foreign journalists working in Egypt (and most of the rest of the Middle East) long ago accustomed ourselves to the idea that pretty much everyone we met assumed us to be spies. Journalists and spies, after all, do many of the same things: they gather information, ask questions, cultivate confidences. Human rights activists, if anything, were worse. From a government perspective do they have any purpose at all except to embarrass the country? Looked at this way it is not hard to see how the Mubarak regime has been able today to convince its thugs that journalists and human rights workers are among the most important enemies who need to be rooted out in the name of preserving Egypt’s stability.
It may even be that Mubarak and his Vice President-cum-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman believe much of the rhetoric they have been spouting about foreign elements plotting to undermine the stability of the state. Especially since their seeming belief that nasty foreigners are out to get them dovetails nicely with what they seem to want to do: make sure that prying foreign eyes are removed from Tahrir Square and its surroundings before the final confrontation. Mubarak has never been especially good at international PR, but he is smart enough to know that a crackdown televised live around the world will be very bad for him on many, many levels.
Friday feels like an historic day, one likely to determine the balance of power and, with it, the eventual course of this uprising. The question that remains to be answered concerns the army and where its ultimate loyalties lie. I have been saying for several days that the generals around Mubarak are loyal to him, but have a deeper loyalty to the institution of the military. When they believe Mubarak has become too much of a liability, they will force him out. I still believe that, but stand corrected concerning how much latitude they have been willing to give him to solve things the old fashioned way – with the street thugs the regime has used for decades (albeit on a much smaller scale). The government clearly wants whatever happens Friday to take place without pesky reporters and cameras around to record it. Even with the violence of the last 24 hours, however, that is likely to prove far more difficult than they imagine.
What none of us on the outside can know is how the army’s own internal dynamics may factor into this. The U.S. State Department was telling journalists earlier today that in standing by as the violence swelled around them Wednesday and Thursday the army had, in effect, made a choice. On one level, that is certainly true. But it may also be that the generals around Mubarak are less than completely sure the captains and majors commanding those tanks in Tahrir Square will obey an order to crush the protests.
I suspect we will have a better sense of all these questions by the time the sun goes down tomorrow.
Mubarak has just finished speaking. His remarks were more or less as predicted.
Saying "I never wanted power or prestige" he said. He continued:
"I will say in all honesty, and without looking at this particular situation, that I was not intent on standing for the next elections because I have spent enough time serving Egypt, and I am now careful to conclude my work for Egypt by presenting Egypt to the next government in a constitutional way that will protect Egypt."
The key bit may, however, have been the first part of the speech, where Mubarak charged that the protests, while legitimate in their origins, have been hijacked "by those who wanted to exploit the situation to create chaos and destroy the constitution." The message here is that Mubarak does not believe that the demonstrators in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities are truly representative of the Egyptian public.
That conclusion on his part makes his bottom line unsurprising: Mubarak intends to stay and serve out his term. He called for democratic reforms and changes to the constitution, but indicated that he plans to be the person who oversees these between now and the fall.
Will this be enough? We should have a better sense in 24 hours or so, but it is worth noting that CNN is reporting that the crowd in Tahrir, after watching the speech on a giant TV, began chanting "We're not leaving."
CNN, citing the Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiyya, is reporting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will make a televised address this evening (it is currently about 930p in Cairo, so, presumably that means some time in the next 3-4 hours).
Al-Arabiyya is also reporting, according to CNN, that Mubarak will announce that he will not run for a new six-year term in the presidential election scheduled to take place this September.
There are a couple of quick things that should be said here:
First, while Al-Arabiyya has historically been one of the more reliable Arab satellite channels I would not take this as a given. There are a lot of rumors flying about, and even the best vetting system can let something through. I have no access to Al-Arabiyya and, so, no way to judge the report on my own, so I can't offer any opinion on the solidity or lack thereof of Al-Arabiyya's sourcing. (LATE UPDATE: Al-Jazeera English is also carrying the story - though without sourcing at all... which makes me think they are just picking it up from Al-Arabiyya via Reuters... i.e. a self-reinforcing loop, not independent confirmation).
Assuming, however, for the sake of argument, that this report is accurate I would not count on it changing the attitudes of many of the people out in Tahrir Square tonight. Mubarak is 82. Until last week the only political question of consequence in Egypt was whether he was going to run in September or pass the presidency on to his son Gamal. I think we can all agree that Gamal's chances of inheriting the presidency are now close to nil, but if Mubarak thinks these ever-larger crowds will be mollified by a promise to step aside in eight months I suspect he is sorely mistaken. Two weeks ago that might have looked like an act of dictatorial statesmanship. Five days ago it might have taken the steam out of the demonstrations. But based on what we are seeing now, I simply can't see how that is going to work.
It bears repeating: the generals around Mubarak are loyal to him. But they have a deeper loyalty to the institution of the military. They will keep Mubarak - one of their own - in power for as long as they can, but they will not risk the military's position as the final arbiter of Egyptian politics and power to protect Mubarak.
By publicly refusing to honor any order to fire on the demonstrators the Army has preemptively closed off many of Mubarak's options even as it has strengthened its own hand.
If Mubarak does offer to step aside this fall and that does not quiet the protests it will become much easier for the military to ease him from the public stage.
Mubarak has unveiled his new cabinet. According to AFP, the line-up was announced on state television a short time ago. Not surprisingly Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi has kept his job, as has Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. What is significant is how little has changed: among key posts the only people to be replaced were the interior and finance ministers.
AFP describes the outgoing interior minister, Habib Al-Adly, as "widely hated" - to which I can only say, 'so what else is new?' Over the years Egyptian interior ministers, who are in charge of the police, have proven to be pretty much interchangable. They tend to be slightly thuggish, invariably unpopular figures and almost always end their careers as scapegoats during a cabinet reshuffle. Dumping an interior minister has traditionally been a safety valve for Mubarak - there's always a sigh of relief when one goes, even though everyone knows the new guy is going to be pretty much the same as his predecessor.
Finance ministers, too, have traditionally been the people Mubarak throws out when he wants to show he is 'hearing the People's voice.' The problem, of course, is that this time the People are not complaining about an austerity program pushed by foreign donors or a new agreement with the IMF - the traditional sort of things that turn an Egyptian finance minister into the fall guy. The protesters in the streets of Cairo are complaining about the entire system of government
In an odd side note Mubarak also dumped longtime Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. If that name vaguely rings a bell it is because Hosni, last year, narrowly lost his bid to become head of UNESCO after international attention began to focus on his tendency to pander to anti-Semites in the Egyptian parliament (he famously promised to burn every Israeli book in the Egypt's libraries). I'm no fan of Farouk Hosni, but at this moment is this really where Mubarak ought to be directing his attention?
What does the new cabinet mean? At best, it indicates how profoundly divorced from reality Mubarak now is: that he fails to understand that what is happening in his country is fundamentally different from anything he has ever faced. Again, that is the best case scenario. The other - and, I fear, more likely - explanation is that Mubarak is sending a signal that he intends to dig in and fight. If so, that will be bad news for everyone.
The Conspiracy theory of the moment is that the looters and thugs terrorizing nighttime Cairo and Alexandria are agents of the regime – police and internal security men in plain clothes who are spreading terror and chaos in an effort to panic people into wanting a military crackdown to restore order.
I have long been wary of Middle Eastern conspiracy theories, but this one seems more plausible than most. For decades Mubarak has justified his heavy-handed rule by claiming that the only alternative to his regime is chaos leading, eventually, to an Iranian-style theocracy. Is it so difficult to believe that he may have decided to make Egyptians stare into the abyss before offering them the choice between the devil they know and the one they don’t? The evidence is anecdotal, but it is far more than mere rumor: neighborhood patrols are capturing would-be looters and saboteurs and discovering that some carry police or security service IDs.
That said, there are other possible explanations for what is happening. Looting, after all, may just be… looting. Cairo certainly has its share of criminals, and the withdrawal of police from the city’s streets was bound to bring out looters. Note that this theory implies only that the government is not actively abetting the breakdown of civil order – it does not mean that they aren’t hoping to take advantage of it.
The regime may be organizing the looting. It may be standing idly by and allowing it to take place. There is also, however, a third option: that the regime wants to assert control but finds itself frozen in place.
Egypt is a remarkably centralized state, one in which even relatively minor decisions get passed all the way up to a cabinet minister, or even the president. This is partly because its bureaucratic culture discourages officials from taking any action for which they might be held responsible. It is also partly because that is simply the way things have always been done – not just under Mubarak and his predecessors but under the monarchy, the British, the French, the Ottomans and, if you believe local lore, pretty much all the way back to the Pharaohs.
According to this theory the entire security apparatus, starting with the army, may be waiting for Mubarak to tell them what to do while Mubarak himself is paralyzed with indecision. When I lived in Cairo, in the 80s and 90s, American embassy officials would, in private conversation, express general satisfaction with Mubarak as an ally with a single caveat: he was not, they said, good in a fast-moving crisis.
There were two occasions during his first decade in power when such crises presented themselves: the 1985 hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro (which found Mubarak caught between his American patrons and Palestinian militants who enjoyed enormous support among his people), and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 (in which the question was how – or whether – to confront Iraq’s aggression).
On both occasions, American officials would say privately, when presented with difficult and unpopular decisions that needed to be made quickly he simply froze up. In both cases, they’d say, he eventually did more or less the right thing, but he practically had to be shoved into it.
Since then no comparable situation has really presented itself. The Mubarak regime’s war with Islamist militants unspooled over a period of years in the 90s. There were many brutal and violent moments, and there were tough decisions to make, but the situation never required minute-to-minute crisis management. The opposition Kefaya movement’s protests in 2005 and the later April 6 Movement protests (which first took shape in 2008) were nothing that ever really worried the regime. They were an annoyance, but never really threatened its stability.
Today, that is not the case. For all of the personality cult that has grown up around him in recent years, Mubarak is an inherently cautious man. Time and again he has indicated that the lesson he took away from Sadat’s final years (when the man the West still remembers as a great peacemaker was openly reviled on Cairo’s streets) and eventual assassination was that getting out ahead of public opinion carries great risks and offers mostly trouble in return.
So as the aging dictator watches the violence unfold around him he may, indeed, be the great puppet master. But it seems just as plausible to me that he is overwhelmed: too terrified to do anything, for fear that whatever choice he makes might turn out to be wrong.
The irony is that things have reached a point where neither of these scenarios offers much hope of keeping him in power. As Mohammed El-Baradei suggested in interviews today, the best favor Mubarak can now do the nation, and himself, is to depart in an orderly manner while maintaining some shred of dignity. I fear, however, that that choice, too, may be too much this for this Pharaoh who is paradoxically brutal in his methods, yet cautious to a fault.
Ben Wedeman reported on CNN a short time ago that “a source familiar with the thinking of Egypt’s ruling party” (interestingly vague bit of sourcing, that) tells him Suleiman's appointment ensures that a credible (from the military's perspective) successor is in place should Mubarak need to go. That makes sense to me.
This ties into the bigger point I've tried to make over the last two days: Egypt’s military is an independent, free-standing organization and it holds ultimate authority in the country. Mubarak, in effect, heads that organization. His peers (the generals) are loyal to him, but have a deeper loyalty to the institution. They won't abandon him lightly, but will not hesitate to do so if they believe they must.
Gordon Robison has more than 25 years of experience living in and writing about the Middle East.