The rising in Egypt is an event of world-historic proportions. It has put the largest and most important country in the Arab world on the verge of revolution.
The global economic crisis has fused with the slower-burning crisis of Western imperialism and its client regimes in the Middle East, with explosive consequences. The fate of president Hosni Mubarak now depends on three forces—the army, the White House, and, last, but very far from least, the Egyptian masses.
The army’s position remains ambiguous. It has been the basis of every Egyptian regime since the Free Officers Movement seized power in 1952. Mubarak, like his predecessors Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat, came from the military.
The deployment of troops on the streets on Friday of last week was welcomed by the protesters, accompanied as it was by the withdrawal of the hated Central Security Force.
But, as the Washington Post commented, “It remains to be seen whether the grand gestures [of sympathy with the protests] reflected a military endorsement of the protesters’ demand or were simply an attempt by commanders to defuse tensions and buy time for the autocratic Mubarak to consolidate control and put in a plan of succession.”
Mubarak’s appointment of two military men, Omar Suleiman as vice-president and Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister, probably represents his desire to hang on. In principle, the appointment of a vice-president for the first time in nearly 30 years provides a mechanism for the “orderly succession” called for by the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton last Sunday.
But Suleiman, ex-chief of the foreign intelligence service, is described in a 2007 US State Department cable published by Wikileaks as a “rock-solid” Mubarak loyalist. Another from April 2009 quotes him ranting that, “Egypt is circled by radicalism”, represented by Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas.
The view of Mubarak as a bastion against Islamist radicalism—within Egypt and the region—is also a major factor in the US’s calculations.
Its vice-resident Joe Biden expressed this in a particularly crass way last week: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalising relationship with Israel. I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Israel’s reaction has made clear yet again that the last thing it wants to see is democracy in the Arab world. One academic expert told the Financial Times, “This is not like eastern Europe in the late 1980s. This is not a region where stable dictatorships can be replaced with stable democracies. Here the alternative means chaos, anarchy and radicalism.”
But, as the rising in Egypt unfolded, Barack Obama has had to confront the reality that Mubarak has become a liability. Hence the carefully calibrated comments—not openly ditching him, but demanding that he not crush the protests and respect the rights of the demonstrators, while threatening to cut off US aid ($1.5 billion a year) to Egypt.
The New York Times reported after a meeting of the US National Security Council last week: “President Obama’s decision to stop short, at least for now, of calling for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was driven by the administration’s concern that it could lose all leverage over the Egyptian president, and because it feared creating a power vacuum inside the country, according to administration officials involved in the debate.”
Overshadowing these deliberations will be the memory of the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9.
Then the US hung on to its ally, the Shah, for too long. When it dropped him the army collapsed in the face of the revolutionary movement. In Egypt too, the US will be relying on its close links with the military to influence the situation. But the Egyptian armed forces aren’t a homogeneous institution. They are vulnerable to external pressure.
Today the most powerful pressure comes from the masses on the streets. They are the key to the puzzle baffling the Obama administration.