CRISIS IN EGYPT Who's to cut off the head of the snake?
By Pepe Escobar
It does sound like the pastiche of a short story by the late, great Egyptian winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz. United States President Barack Obama sends a "secret" emissary to tell President Hosni Mubarak to abstain from seeking a sixth term in the next elections - on the same day that almost 2 million people yell in the streets for him to just go. The president of Egypt then duly hits state television to announce to the Egyptian people what the US president told him to do.
Predictably, the street exploded in anger. Al-Jazeera (yes, the revolution will be televised ...) just ran a split screen, no
comments, with the sound of the street in Cairo and Alexandria for all the world to hear. "Leave." "Leave, have some dignity." "Get out." So now it's official; it's the dignity, pride and respect - values extremely prized in Arab culture - of Mubarak, against the dignity, pride and respect of 80 million Egyptians.
Call it the White House coup in favor of the Washington catchword of the moment - "orderly transition". As in Obama going on global TV live after Mubarak to spell out the message carried by his messenger, "What is clear, as I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, it is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." ;
Well, as Mubarak himself preferred to spin it, it's "chaos" (protesters "manipulated by political forces") against "stability" (himself and his regime). Something got lost in translation. Who's going to explain to him the meaning of "now"?
The secret agent
Obama's "messenger" in the latest Mubarak pantomime was Frank Wisner, a former diplomat and former AIG executive very close to the Mubarak system oligarchy, and whose brother Graham has represented their extensive business interests. Wisner has lately been a de facto lobbyist for the Mubarak regime among Middle East experts in Washington - unlike, for instance, the bipartisan Egypt Working Group led by former National Security Council member Elliott Abrams and Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment. Without a mere hint of irony, the US State Department had announced that Wisner would press the Mubarak system to "embrace broad economic and political changes" - the same ones never embraced over the past three decades.
So the dictator refuses to flee like the Shah of Iran did in the face of the revolution in 1979. Compare it to a packed Tahrir Square in Cairo holding a simulated trial of Mubarak and rendering a verdict of death by hanging. Or the square chanting "Oh Mubarak, you coward. Oh agent of the Americans" - a nice rhyme in Arabic.
According to Intrade, a Dublin-based betting agency specializing in political risks, 73.5% of punters believe Mubarak will be gone by the end of the month. That may be an eternity for the Egyptian street - which is starting to smell too many suspicious rats.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2005 and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei has been anointed by all major US corporate media networks as the next man. Shady Egyptian-Americans are being screened as possible members of a committee of wise men who would steer the post-Mubarak transitional period.
Arguably the most exhilarating aspect of the Egyptian revolution is that it is not about a power group trying to topple a rival power group. The street is not anointing anybody at the moment. ElBaradei might be a popular choice, but only as a strictly interim leader to get the paralyzed country back on track and set up a transparent system for free and fair elections.
Plan A, what the street is clamoring for - and that's non-negotiable - is that Mubarak goes now - not towards the end of the year as he has now promised - along with all his minions in government, and then the transitional period is on – headed by ElBaradei.
Plan B - a still not totally discarded possibility - is that the army gets rid of Mubarak in a people-mandated coup d'etat. The army installs a provisional military government and sets up a date for parliamentary and presidential elections. This would be a sort of "Turkish" gambit (the Turkish army already did it, years ago). That would do wonders for the army's popular standing.
And once again, like the Turkish army, the Egyptian army regards itself as the guardian of the nation. Every Egyptian ruler since the 1952 colonels' revolt that got rid of King Farouk has been a military; Generals Mohammed Naguib, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser.
I love a man in uniform
This is Egypt; so it's all about the army, the most respected - and arguably the least corrupt - institution in the country, the closest in the popular imagination to the trappings of a state of law, partly reflecting Egypt's dynamic social and geographic diversity. Yet the army also produced many of the most barbaric officers of the Mukhabarat - the intelligence services.
As it stands, there may be reasons to believe a split inside the military establishment is in effect. Consider the four essential players in the whole drama:
Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, military intelligence chief, Mubarak's suave torturer and now designated as vice president. His health is not exactly good. No way the street will accept him as a "democratic" reformer.
Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq, minister for civil aviation, and now designated prime minister. Like Mubarak, he hails from the relatively elite, pampered air force. Zero popular charisma.
Lieutenant General Sami Annan, chief of staff of the army. He commands 468,000 troops, a mix of staff officers and oceans of conscripts. That's the branch closest to the Egyptian street. And that's where the statement about the army not shooting people in the streets came from.
Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, defense minister. He commands 60,000 Republican Guards. A Pentagon darling. Got a long call from Pentagon supremo, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday.
It's fair to assume Annan's priority so far has been to preserve the relatively good image of his branch. This would imply that for him the fate of the Mubarak gang is secondary. What matters is to preserve the institution of the army.
Even if for a fleeting moment, Suleiman is now the most powerful man in a de facto Egyptian military junta. He is backed by a military elite; the whole repression machine; and the dwindling, frightened ruling elite (those who still have not escaped to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates). Although quite remote, the possibility remains of these four major players coming to the conclusion that the boss must go so the regime may be saved.
What is already unraveling for sure is the compact that allows a dictatorship to control power: the iron link between the army and the repression machine; their unqualified submission to the dictator; and no qualms about firing on their own people. That's what was in effect in Iran in the summer of 2009; thus the green revolution was squashed.
These four commanders may also be losing some sleep about the fate of the Iranian generals after the fall of the shah; they made a deal with grand ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, later reneged, were persecuted, and Khomeini even created his own army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. They also must be thinking about the Turkish army - which now, under the Islam-lite government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is prevented from determining which way the political wind in Turkey should blow.
Still the window remains open for Annan, as well as Suleiman, Shafiq and Tantawi to conclude it's better for the army to keep a certain moral standing and its privileged relationship with the Pentagon by dumping the pharaoh and being a key actor in shaping post-revolutionary Egypt.
Which opens the next can of worms. The army has conducted a virtual pogrom of Islamists over these past three decades. It's unclear how top commanders will resign themselves to working with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a political partner. Unlike the MB, they defend the Camp David peace accords with Israel - and certainly don't want another Middle East war. But would they respect a possible popular referendum that most certainly would call for the accords to be revoked?
Meanwhile, the military elite seems to be the only weapon available to hasten Mubarak's understanding of the word "now". Even Abu Omar, a former imam in Milan, Italy, accused of terrorism by the US Central Intelligence Agency, kidnapped, "rendered" to his native Egypt and then returned home (he lives in Alexandria) believes that's the case; "The only realistic solution for the country at the moment is for the military to take over." Now.