The Suleiman Problem: Egypt's Transitional Figure Won't Transition

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Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman talks to representatives from political parties in the Prime Minister's office in Cairo on Feb. 6, 2011

The Obama Administration's balancing act on Egypt continues as the protests demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster show no signs of abating after 16 days. Having initially come close to suggesting it was time for Mubarak to go (without actually saying as much), the Administration brought relief to its regional allies — Israel and other Arab autocrats — by endorsing Mubarak's intelligence chief, hastily appointed as Vice President, to oversee an "orderly" political transition. However, a democratic transfer of power is not what Omar Suleiman appears to have in mind.

Not only has Suleiman failed to engage seriously with any of the key demands of the opposition, but he has begun to darkly warn that the "intolerable" protest action must be speedily brought to an end. And so the Administration has found itself having to scold and berate the man Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last weekend hailed as the leader to oversee the transition.

"It is clear that what the [Egyptian] government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday. "We believe that more has to be done." The Administration also revealed on Tuesday that Vice President Joe Biden had called Suleiman and urged him to immediately revoke the state of emergency, which has been in force for the past 30 years and which criminalizes political activity and allows the regime to detain and harass opponents. Biden also urged his Egyptian counterpart to negotiate directly with opposition groups over the constitutional changes necessary to democratically elect a replacement for Mubarak, who has said he won't run for re-election in September.

The decision to back a Suleiman-led transition produced howls of derision from critics in Washington, and even more so from those risking their lives on the ground in Egypt to demand Mubarak's ouster. And it's not hard to see why: Suleiman, the longtime security chieftain of Mubarak's police state, has no enthusiasm for turning Egypt into a democracy. He said as much last weekend, arguing that his country was "not ready" for democracy — a statement the White House deemed "unhelpful."

Instead, Mubarak's new Vice President held cursory talks with some opposition groups, although they say he largely ignored their recommendations and set up three committees under government auspices to discuss constitutional reforms. In the meantime, security forces continue to harass and detain journalists and activists, and on Tuesday, Suleiman warned that the authorities won't tolerate endless protest, which he implied is being stoked by foreign forces. Civil disobedience is "very dangerous for society, and we can't put up with this at all," he told an interviewer. He warned that there is no question of Mubarak's stepping down immediately, as the opposition demands, and suggested that a protracted crisis could produce a "coup."

Neither Suleiman's gestures nor his threats have had any impact on the protest movement — Tuesday saw the largest turnout yet of demonstrators expressing their determination to see Mubarak removed. Another major demonstration is planned for Friday, and the protest movement's leverage has received a potentially massive boost from the fact that workers in a number of sectors have gone on strike. Even though the initial spur for the actions by railway workers, bus drivers and gasoline refinery workers was their bread-and-butter demands, organizers are drawing a clear link with the wider protest movement. And the classic sociology of revolution suggests that the regime is in greater peril when the challenge mounted by young middle-class students and professionals is buttressed by blue-collar workers who have the muscle to bring sections of the economy to a halt.

So the U.S. finds itself putting pressure on Suleiman to do things he's not comfortable doing — a fact noted on Wednesday by Egypt's Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, who lashed out at the U.S. for "imposing its will".

The conflict with Suleiman and those around him over the terms of change should come as no surprise to Administration officials, says Marc Lynch, a George Washington University specialist in Arab politics, whom the White House consulted as it sought to reshape its policy in response to the Egypt crisis. "The hard reality is that we may not get the cathartic moment of Mubarak's plane departing to the cheers of millions of Egyptians celebrating a new era," Lynch wrote on Tuesday in Foreign Policy. "The struggle is now shifting to the much messier terrain of negotiations over the terms of Egypt's transition ... Nobody in the administration has any illusions about Suleiman's likely intentions to revert to the old familiar games of the Egyptian national security state: dividing and co-opting the opposition, selective repression, stoking fears of Islamists, playing for time while evoking a desire for normalcy, offering token reforms which can either be retracted down the road or emptied of meaning, and protecting the core perogoatives of the regime. The Egyptian military seems to have a winning game plan, and it doesn't include the fundamental reforms for which Egyptian protestors or the Obama administration have called."

So even as it endorsed Suleiman, Lynch argued, the White House was aware that it would have to hold his feet to the fire on the terms of change. The area in which Washington has had the most impact has been restraining the Egyptian security forces from massacring protesters. Now, Lynch argues, the Administration should widen its focus by pressing the regime to lift the emergency and take other steps to create legal space for the sort of free political activity that has thus far been possible in defiance of the authorities. In Lynch's view, the U.S. should also push for the release of detained activists and journalists and keep up the pressure for negotiations.

Although those on the street have made Mubarak's departure the sine qua non of resolving the political crisis, the mechanics of achieving that under the current constitutional order are complicated — indeed, the opposition has not yet presented a consensus position on just how Mubarak should be eased out and a democratic election process be instituted. A presidential election is scheduled for September, but the present rules essentially limit the field to members of Mubarak's party. If he quit precipitously, power would be handed to the speaker of parliament, who would have to hold new elections within 60 days — but based on the current rules. Some opposition figures want an interim government to take over and prepare for new elections next year. The outcome of these debates, however, will be settled largely on the streets — by the extent of the opposition's unity and the balance of power between it and the regime. But the struggle to oust Mubarak is turning very quickly into a battle to shape the post-Mubarak era.

Suleiman may be under pressure from the Obama Administration to open up political space to the regime's opponents, but he is as tough as he is wily, and he plainly has little use for Washington's tutelage in managing the crisis. Besides publicly questioning Egypt's readiness for democracy, he insists that the emergency will be lifted only when "conditions" allow it, a position the regime has maintained for years. So the question facing the Obama Administration is how much pressure it is willing to put behind its demands for reform and negotiation — or, even more urgently, for restraint. Despite Suleiman's menacing tone, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians plan to demonstrate again on Friday . They're not waiting for the Obama Administration to deliver them from Mubarak and Mubarakism.