The Berlin Wall analogy that has been a staple of Western media discussion of the struggle for power in Egypt looked off the mark on Wednesday as the regime unleashed a brutal strategy for remaining in power which might make Prague Spring a more apposite analogy. The Berlin Wall's rupture saw East Germany's communist regime collapse, while the democratic uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was crushed by Russian tanks.
The Egyptian army, which had vowed not to use force against the protesters, stood by passively as thousands of pro-government thugs who were bused in bludgeoned their way into the peaceful anti-government crowd on Cairo's Tahrir Square. Violent chaos and gunfire raged throughout Wednesday night, leaving hundreds wounded and at least four dead, according to local media reports. The events made clear that the earlier suggestions that the army was siding with the protesters were premature. And on Thursday, the military took up positions between anti-government demonstrators and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak, moving on the pro-government group. Meanwhile, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologized for the attacks on protesters. "This is a fatal error, and when investigations reveal who is behind this crime and who allowed it to happen, I promise they will be held accountable and will be punished for what they did," he told al-Hayat TV. Not only was his apology rare for a leadership that rarely makes public admissions of a mistake, but his vow to investigate the instigators of the attack was issued only hours after the Interior Ministry denied that the police were involved.
The violent backlash by regime supporters on Wednesday underscored Mubarak's determination to defy the demand of protesters and implicitly of the Obama Administration that he step down immediately. Instead, he says he intends to remain in charge until the next election, scheduled for September, supervising what he promises will be an "orderly" transition of power. And he and the top military men around him appear to have designed a strategy to keep the reins until then. The opposition is insisting that Mubarak leave immediately, but Wednesday's events raised the question of whether they have a winning strategy. But the pressure will have intensified on Mubarak on Thursday, after Europe's most powerful leaders those in France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain issued a joint statement condemning the violence and calling for a political transition that "must start now." And Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood have rejected the government's calls for negotiations, saying Mubarak must leave office first.
Tuesday's "march of millions" may have been the protest movement's crescendo, a massive show of strength of the streets that prompted Mubarak to announce that he would not seek re-election and would spend the next seven months presiding over a process of reforms and consultation in order to affect an orderly transfer of power. That was never going to be acceptable to many of the demonstrators, nor to the U.S. President Obama on Tuesday demanded that the transition begin "now," and when asked on Wednesday what "now" meant, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said "yesterday."
But the Egyptian regime was contemptuous of Obama's demand, saying if the U.S. wants an orderly transition, as it insists it does, that it can't do that with "a vacuum of power," as one Egyptian official told the New York Times. Mubarak's retirement announcement was designed for the army as well as the many millions of Egyptians caught somewhere between the protesters and hard-core supporters of the regime. His transition plan appears to have been embraced by the military which, after all, has been the source of political power in Egypt since the 1952 coup that overturned the monarchy, and whose top echelon is unlikely to want to relinquish control of the transition process to forces unknown. The army on Wednesday issued a statement to the protesters saying their demands had been heard and that it was time for them to go home.
If the army is willing to see Mubarak make a dignified exit while keeping the political reform process in friendly hands most important, those of Vice President and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman the regime's hard-core support base is even more determined not to see Mubarak ejected from office. Many of the thugs who attacked the protesters turned out to be police officers or police family members, a reminder that there are tens of thousands of Egyptians who are deeply invested in a brutal regime they have served as enforcers on the ground. Many are so fearful of losing its protection that they're willing to spill Egyptian blood, as they always have been, to keep their paymasters in place.
Of greater concern to the protest movement may be the reality that there are millions of ordinary Egyptians to whom Mubarak's proposed graceful exit over seven months sounds reasonable, and who desperately want an end to the economic and security chaos that has disrupted their lives over the past week and threatens to turn even more violent. Even among those who have supported the protests, not all are convinced of the wisdom of further confrontation. The regime will be hoping to divide the opposition leaders, hoping that some can be tempted to begin negotiations with the regime even while others insist on Mubarak's departure as a precondition.
The democracy movement is putting enough pressure on the regime that its presence on the streets and its strike actions are disrupting the regime's functioning. But such actions also disrupt the lives of many millions of ordinary people. By unleashing its thugs and creating a situation of violent chaos, the regime creates a pretext for the military to simply clear everyone off the streets. Asking soldiers to fire on peaceful demonstrators could create a crisis within the ranks, but asking them to clear rival political camps off the streets to end violent chaos (even if that chaos was deliberately instigated) may be a different prospect. The army is urging everyone to go home; sooner or later, it will become more insistent. As things stand, once the protesters are off the streets, the leverage of the opposition leaders diminishes.
So the regime appears to be calculating that time as well as the creation of violent chaos among demonstrators on the streets will work in its favor to maintain control. Sure, the U.S. is publicly urging Mubarak to start the political transition "yesterday," but the Egyptian President and Vice President may have little incentive to pay Washington much heed.
The regime's strategy is premised on the idea that it can make the protesters' strategy a show of strength through marches and a vow to stay on the streets until Mubarak goes work in its favor by turning the army and many ordinary citizens against further street action. If Mubarak's men are right, the dilemma facing the protest leadership will be finding plausible strategies for a more sustained challenge to Mubarak if he manages to tough out the standoff on the streets.