Twelve days into the massive protests against his autocratic regime, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is still clinging on to his position. This has led many to ask the super question: What’s taking Egypt’s velvet revolution too long?
Since the uprising exploded on January 25, many Western pundits, perhaps more hopeful than informed, had been predicting that Mubarak’s departure would only be a matter of days, if not hours. But it’s now becoming clear that, while for all intents and purposes Mubarak’s dictatorship has come to a close, the transition would probably be slow and have less drama. The on-going situation in Egypt resembles not a velvet but a negotiated—or calibrated, if you will—revolution.
To understand this, let’s contextualize the political landscape prior and during the Egyptian uprising: Economically, around forty per-cent of the Egyptian population is living on less than two dollars a day while the young, cosmopolitan middle class is practically unemployed. Politically, the Mubarak regime is characterized by widespread corruption, human rights abuses and lack of political freedom. Meanwhile, the stability of the regime has began to show cracks as Mubarak, who had just undergone a gallbladder operation, descends into poor health.
Amidst this background is a parallel power struggle among four important political actors: Mubarak himself; Omar Suleiman and his military-intelligence clique; Mohammad El Baradei and his progressive coalition; and the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Mubarak had never planned to stand for re-election in September this year, he was bent on anointing his son, Gamal, to succeed him as president. Since last year, he had been circumventing the constitution to ensure a Gamal succession while Gamal, for his part, has risen through the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)’s leadership together with his ilk who had constituted themselves as a shadow cabinet waiting to govern.
Gamal, a businessman immersed in Western culture, was actually seen by some as the best hope Egypt has for democracy. But he had two problems: On one hand, he is seen by ordinary Egyptians as a living symbol of corruption and abuse of his father’s regime while, on the other hand, he is seen by the leaders of the military establishment as an outsider who could not be trusted to understand, much more protect, their interests. As Webster Brooks, a senior fellow at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP), said: “Gamal is seen by the military as a Western economic tiger bent on transforming Egypt’s dictatorship into a market economy in which they will be deprived of their governmental patronage machine and perks.”
For this reason, the military-intelligence establishment chose to close ranks behind the shadowy former head of the intelligence service, General Omar Suleiman. Suleiman, tagged by the Western press as the most powerful intelligence man in the Middle East (more powerful than Mossad chiefs), was seen as the more acceptable candidate since his ascendancy would ensure continued primacy of the military on one hand and his pro-Israel credentials would provide justification for the continuation of American assistance on the other. It must be noted that Egypt, a major non-NATO ally, is second only to Israel in terms of the amount of aid it receives from the United States.
Meanwhile, the opposition to the Mubarak regime has also since last year been mobilizing for the presidential elections this September. Mohammed El Baradei, a renowned diplomat and Nobel laureate, has successfully positioned himself as the leader of a coalition of small progressive organizations committed to Egyptian democracy. El Baradei is not an extremist, but he is also not pro-Israel, which makes him an acceptable figurehead for the hodgepodge opposition spectrum.
Looming over these parallel succession maneuverings is the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist organization that happens to be the largest organized opposition group in Egypt. Unlike El Baradei’s group, which has failed to connect their liberal ideals with the economic concerns of the ordinary Egyptians; the Brotherhood is engaged in social and civic works, making its grassroots support base relatively strong.
Now, since the El Baradei coalition and the Brotherhood were unable to mobilize an effective and organized extra-constitutional campaign against Mubarak, all these four political actors had been playing by the rules of the Mubarak-imposed constitutional framework. And obviously, Mubarak had the upper hand since he had the power to manipulate the rules of the game. The present massive uprising, therefore, is a game-changer.
The protests, which was sparked by the Tunisian people power revolt, was not a result of mobilization by any of the four political actors we have mentioned. Instead, it was spontaneous and therefore a people power movement in the most genuine sense of the term. But it seems that this unique feature is also the bane for the movement itself. Firstly, the uprising is leaderless. The Brotherhood and the El Baradei coalition rode into the protests only in the third or fourth day. El Baradei is a mere consensus figurehead, not a real leader like, say, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines. Secondly, being composed of a very wide spectrum of ideologies and groups, the uprising is united only in ousting Mubarak but not on who or what should follow him.
My take is that, thanks to this leadership vacuum and lack of coherence, the Egyptian uprising only resulted in changing the surface of the political landscape, but not the fundamental political context. The name of the game is still the struggle for succession among the four groups we have mentioned above. The only thing that changed is that the balance has been tilted from Hosni and Gamal Mubarak towards the other three players, most notably Suleiman and his military ilk. In a way, therefore, these players have hi-jacked the uprising from the people on the streets.
Among the four actors negotiating this transition, the Muslim Brotherhood has the least leverage because its fundamentalist aspirations still send chills through the spines of so many players. Being a pragmatic organization, it had announced that it is not seeking the leadership of Egypt and has instead forged a tactical alliance with the progressive groups under El Baradei’s leadership. We can say that the main aim of the El Baradei coalition—and therefore the temporary, tactical aim of the Muslim Brotherhood– is a genuinely democratic post-Mubarak dispensation.
Unfortunately, this runs contrary to what the military establishment envisions.
While Filipino analyst Amando Doronilla still wonders on whose side the Egyptian army really is, I think that, for all intents and purposes, the military has already withdrawn support from the Mubarak regime. It didn’t, for instance, impose the curfew early on when it could have had; indeed, imposing the curfew during the first day of the protests could have prevented the uprising from snowballing. Secondly, the military has said that the grievances of the protesters are valid and thus they won’t disperse the protests. Finally, how else can one explain Time magazine’s report that the military has been controlling “a tight cordon around the sole entrance to the square still open, creating a narrow funnel through which they could search each person, and check each identity” to prevent the pro-Mubarak thugs from infiltrating and sabotaging the protests again?
This hypothesis, however, raises a question: If the military had early on withdrawn support from Mubarak, how come it didn’t stage a coup d’etat?
Well, I think there has been, in fact, a shadow coup of sorts: Gamal Mubarak had been sent to London, Omar Suleiman was appointed vice president and is apparently now calling the shots, and Gamal’s shadow cabinet has been purged from the NDP leadership. Clearly, Mubarak is no longer fully in charge; one can easily say that the army now controls him instead of the other way around. And what the army envisions is a post-Mubarak dispensation where it can still play a major role. In short, the military is trying to protect its turf.
To be sure, there are those in the army who want to take power from Mubarak, declare outright military rule, and put an end to the protests, which have been causing anarchy on the streets. But the more sober heads most likely know that there is also a need to play to the gallery, so to speak. That is, to appease the Western audience who, thanks to social networking and traditional media, are glued to the unfolding developments in Egypt. After all, it is to this audience that the military’s American benefactors are accountable.
This leads us now to the other important stakeholder in this whole affair: the United States.
As always, Washington has been sending mixed signals: At first, it expressed support for Mubarak, calling his regime stable. Then, it called the protesters’ grievances valid and expressed support for a transition to a post-Mubarak era. Now, it is calling for the transition process to begin immediately. But what’s consistent is that Washington always stops short of calling for the dictator’s immediate resignation.
The reasons behind these are obvious. Firstly, the United States has to calibrate its messages since the receiver of such messages is not just Cairo but other significant capitals in the Middle East as well. That is, America’s messages must not put its other autocratic Arab allies on a difficult position. Secondly, while the Obama administration has at last decided that Mubarak has to go, it still wants a beneficial transition that would have an insurance against an Islamic fundamentalist take-over in Cairo.
For the Obama administration, managing Egypt is a tough balancing act. On one hand, it must not be seen—both by the people of the Middle East and its own American constituents—as being “on the wrong side of history.” On the other hand, it must ensure that the political re-alignment in Egypt would not be detrimental to the security of Israel and to American interests in the Middle East. Therefore, it envisions a post-Mubarak dispensation that would be strong enough to repel any attempt by any fundamentalist entity to take power while at the same time open enough to have a semblance of a democratic façade.
The Suleiman and his military-intelligence clique understand this, which is why they now find themselves in a position where, while they have the ability to take power, they have to negotiate with the opposition groups that serve as the faces of the protests and include them, in one way or another, in the post-Mubarak dispensation.
Of course, it is difficult to predict exactly where this drama would lead Egypt and the region to. The situation is fluid. Perhaps the protesters, if they can maintain their momentum, could gain more leverage over the military in negotiating this revolution. Or maybe, as veteran journalist Guillermo H. A. Santos speculated, the United States might find the situation too dangerous for Israel and therefore openly ask Suleiman to take over. Or, if he plays his cards well, Mubarak, who still has some friends in Washington, might stay on at least as a transition figurehead if and when the protests lose their steam.
What I’m sure is that, sans other unpredictable variables, it’s now extremely difficult to see how this drama could lead to a fairy-tale moment that would give the Egyptians freedom and democracy overnight.
(Update, Feb. 10: Suleiman warns that the opposition should negotiate or else there might be a coup.
Feb. 8: Egyptian TV shows Mubarak meeting his cabinet earlier today. Too early to say if it was just a political kabuki or if the strongman is still in charge.)