February 10, 2011

Egypt on a collision course - some comments

ADDENDUM - On the afternoon of February 11 (Cairo time), Husni Mubarak finally did the right thing and resigned as President of Egypt, turning over the government to the Egyptian military. This is about as good an outcome as could be hoped for

Now the military must set in place the transition to a elective democracy with real elections. Of course, as with elections in Gaza, we might not like the results. At least there will not be more bloodshed in the streets of Cairo.


Protesters in Tahrir Square

Like almost everyone else watching the drama of the Egyptian uprising unfold, I was surprised by Husni Mubarak's attempt to split hairs by maintaining himself as the President but divesting himself of some presidential powers. Mubarak handed some of his authority to newly-appointed Vice President 'Umar Sulayman but remained in office, vowing to stay until the elections scheduled for September. Sulayman acted like he and Mubarak had now sufficiently addressed the demands of the crowds in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

They failed. The subtleties of the power shift was lost on the crowd. Their basic, non-negotiable demand was that Mubarak step down. The crowds reacted predictably to Mubarak's intransigence, with anger and continued demands that he depart. The most common sign in the square reads "Irhal Mubarak (Leave, Mubarak)."

What happened? CIA Director Leon Panetta, speaking in a Congressional hearing, said that he expected Mubarak to step down as early as this evening. President Obama made a speech in which he praised the young protesters in Egypt for bringing about a transition in the country, obvioulsy expecting Mubarak to resign. Senior Egyptian military and civilian officials confirmed to media outlets that President Mubarak would address the nation and announce his decision to step down.

Vice President Sulayman, who was probably one of only two people who knew what Mubarak was planning, was more coy. He declared that the President would make an announcement that would make the protesters happy.

The protesters are anything but happy. Television coverage of the square reveals an angry crowd being whipped into a fervor alternately by an activist and an imam. It is Friday in Cairo, the Muslim day of worship when the mosques will be full of Egyptians looking for guidance.

Anyone who says they know what is going to happen is speculating. Many Middle East specialists and analysts have taken a wait-and-see attitude because there is no way to accurately predict events in Cairo. There are too many variables and the situation changes by the hour.

That said, a few comments from my perspective.

Day 18 - Friday - may be the decisive moment of the uprising. Mubarak and the protesters are on a collision course. The protesters want the President to step down, and the President has refused, vowing to stay until his term expires. One of them is going to have to give. There does not appear to me to be room for compromise.

In the end, it appears that the Egyptian Army will be the final arbiter of power in the country. If and when the people continue to protest and become violent in their attempt to force Mubarak from power, the Mubarak government will have to make the decision to order the Army to restore order. Then we will know how this will turn out.

Will the Egyptian Army fire on its own people? It is impossible to know for sure, but I believe they will not. If they will not use force against the protesters, will they then turn on the Mubarak government and remove the President?

My personal observation is that Mubarak is in the position to save a lot of Egyptian lives, maybe even his own. If the protesters have the momentum to continue the uprising, and it appears to me that they do, we are moving towards the convergence of two unstoppable forces.

I hope a solution short of bloodshed is out there; short of Mubarak resigning, I do not know what that is. I fear this will not end well. It may change the political landscape in the Middle East for decades to come.