Stalemate on the Street Poses Risks for Mubarak's Opponents

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Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

An Egyptian soldier atop a tank watches opposition supporters during a huge rally in the opposition stronghold in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 8, 2011.

A quick scan of the world's newspapers this morning will highlight an unsettling fact for Egypt's democracy movement: their battle of wills with President Hosni Mubarak no longer elicits banner headlines; in some papers of record, it is no longer the top story. Nor can that be blamed simply on the limited attention span of Western audiences for the standoff's often inscrutable political dynamics; instead, it's a sign that the epic struggle for Egypt's future has gone into a kind of holding pattern, with no climactic conclusion apparently imminent. The story from Tahrir Square today is starting to look a lot like the story from Tahrir Square yesterday, and the day before that.

The air of permanence that appears to have settled over the square where tens of thousands of protesters remain camped out is a great victory over the government's efforts to eject them. But while having backed off from ordering its security forces to disperse them, the regime has recovered its footing after the shock of the initial demonstrations had left it reeling. Now, the regime appears to be playing a waiting game, hoping to physically and politically encircle the core of the protest movement on Tahrir Square.

Beyond the square, a city that was paralyzed by the regime's lockdown in response to the initial wave of protests is slowly edging back to some semblance of normalcy — and that's an image state TV is doing its best to encourage. Banks reopened Monday, and the stock exchange is set to reopen next Sunday. The regime's message to Egyptians is that it remains in charge, and that the crisis is over.

And while the protesters will likely again draw massive crowds on Tuesday — and perhaps again after Friday prayers — simply being on the street isn't enough to bring down the regime. As dramatic as the past two weeks of protest have been, they have never seriously threatened the hard power of the regime, with the military having maintained its cohesion and showing no inclination to defy orders and back the protesters.

The protesters' key demand has been for Mubarak's ouster, and one way or another he won't be President for much longer, having vowed not to stand for re-election later this year and still facing the possibility of being sidelined even sooner once he has signed off the constitutional authorizations required to allow a more democratic election. Right now, of course, pressure hasn't yet been sufficient to force even an early departure, but as things stand, Mubarak's ouster will simply be a change of personnel.

The regime Mubarak heads was never a personality-cult dictatorship as much as a military-sanctioned autocracy whose Presidents have been drawn from the senior echelon of the officer corps since 1952. It will survive Mubarak's departure as long his replacement is cut from the same cloth. Enter the recently named Vice President, Lieut. General Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime enforcer who became the head of Egypt's feared secret service in 1993 after four decades in the army.

The Obama Administration has enthusiastically embraced Suleiman as the man to lead the transition, and Israel has long viewed him as the next best thing to Mubarak, as U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks attest. But not many Egyptian democrats share Washington's and Israel's enthusiasm for a leader who has long represented the unsentimental side of Mubarak's regime. Suleiman still publicly insists that the protest movement has been stoked by foreigners, and embarrassed the Obama Administration last weekend by publicly declaring that Egyptians are "not ready" for democracy.

Distrust of Suleiman won't have been lessened by his talks with some opposition leaders Sunday, after which he publicly announced that "consensus" had been achieved with the Muslim Brotherhood and others — a claim loudly protested by the Muslim group, who said it might avoid further talks because Suleiman had been so unyielding on most of the opposition's key demands.

But the Vice President may be less interested in finding agreement with his longtime sworn enemies in the Muslim Brotherhood than he is in crafting a message for state media, through which most Egyptians have been following the crisis. The party line is that the regime is moving forward with reform, acknowledging some of the demands of the protesters — even sacking the Interior Minister, whose police forces initially attacked demonstrators. Those who remain on Tahrir Square are widely portrayed as dupes or foreign agents of chaos.

More evidence that the regime is digging in came from Monday's Cabinet vote to extend a 15% pay raise to all 6 million employees and pensioners of Egypt's public sector — the chicken-in-every-pot survival strategy used by dictators everywhere to mollify popular discontent, except that food prices have risen so sharply that the increase may be more likely to buy bread rather than chicken. The regime has also released some prisoners but not all; has promised to relax some provisions of the state of emergency that allows the security forces to act with impunity, but not all; and so forth, hoping to peel away support from the protest movement by appearing to meet some of its demands. The regime is clearly betting that enough sectors of Egyptian society can be persuaded to accept Mubarak or Suleiman at the helm of a transition to force a split in the opposition.

The danger facing the democratic rebellion is that it lacks a clear consensus on terms for a political transition. The protesters in the square on Monday appointed a joint command to speak for them in the coming days, but they have their work cut out for them in achieving consensus with the established opposition movements and in winning support for their views in the wider society.

The opposition has called a general strike for Tuesday and has discussed marching on the state TV headquarters. But while the security forces appear to accept their presence in the square, it's far from clear that they'd stand aside if the demonstrators tried to march elsewhere. And the government is betting that the millions of Cairenes who have had no part in the protest — many of whom believe that Mubarak's promise to step down in September is reasonable — will turn against the demonstrators. That leaves them facing the challenge of getting their own message out to the uncommitted, forging a wider consensus on the terms of a post-Mubarak Egypt. The protest movement has done a remarkable job, starting that process on Tahrir Square and hundreds of other locations where Egyptians have, for the first time, claimed the sovereign rights of citizenship by demanding that their government listen to their voices. Now, they will have to hone and popularize a winning message, and do so quickly.