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.



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