Mubarak may be holding on for now, but every day a little bit more, his base of support is eroding beneath him.
CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak may just find a way to survive the current waves of civil unrest rocking Egypt and at least finish out his final term in office. But with thousands of protesters occupying Tahrir Square for a 16th day, his position is growing steadily more precarious.
As Mubarak fights hard for his political life, observers are watching closely for any sign that the anchors of his reign may be crumbling. But for a healthy portion of his nearly 30 years in power, Mubarak enjoyed the status of one of the region's most secure dictators.
He defeated armed Islamists during the 1980s and 1990s, intimidated and co-opted opposition political forces, and created a new generation of wealthy businessmen whose entire livelihoods depended on his government. At the same time, he managed to keep the Muslim Brotherhood -- which long ago gave up violence -- under wraps through constant crackdowns, while using the threat of a Brotherhood takeover to convince both his own citizens and Western governments that his reign was an acceptable, stable alternative. He worked hard to ensure that no credible moderate opposition figures emerged to spoil that stark black-and-white choice, spinning each threat to his rule as if he alone were the bulwark against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
But as he faces the greatest crisis of his tenure, almost every one of Mubarak's traditional reservoirs of support is being subject to daily review.
It would be inaccurate to say that Mubarak is universally hated in Egypt. Vast numbers of Egyptians do support him, seeing him as the kind of stern-but-fair father figure who doesn't accept any backtalk but who ultimately has the country's best interests in mind. After all, there's always someone else to blame when things go wrong: corrupt ministers, Israel, or al Qaeda.
But that reservoir of public support has been eroding steadily over the years, largely due to the fundamental unjustness of the society that Mubarak has helped build.
Issues like blatant corruption and endemic police brutality have soured untold numbers of ordinary apolitical citizens. Last summer, I attended a thousands-strong rally in Alexandria after a young man was beaten to death in public by plainclothes police officers. I found myself surrounded by people who had never before attended a protest, and each person seemed to have a personal tale of abuse, intimation, or humiliation by the police, from routine torture in police stations to mafia-style protection rackets.
Many Egyptians have been inadvertently politicized by the common bitterness of their experiences under Mubarak's heavy hand. Ahmed El Siwi, a 21-year-old engineering student in Tahrir Square told me on Tuesday, Feb. 8, "I think that a lot of this wouldn't have happened if he had just made sure his police were honorable and respectable. It's his fault really."
The National Democratic Party
There's no question of loyalty here. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) machine depends on a calibrated pyramid of patronage and corruption that centers on the president.
NDP officials have no doubt been closely watching events in Tunisia, where protesters have made it clear that simply removing Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from the equation is not sufficient. They refused to stop until all traces of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party were uprooted; a second wave of protests helped bring down the first post-Ben Ali government because it contained too many old regime faces. The NDP, whose headquarters along the Nile were set ablaze on Friday, Jan. 28, rightly fears the exact same result here if Mubarak does fall.
For better or worse, the party's entire fate is tied to that of Mubarak, and there are no public signs of the party turning against him. The recent mass resignations of the entire top tier of NDP leadership -- a cynical purge at Mubarak's "request" -- and installation of supposedly reformist figures is unlikely to reduce the protesters' visceral animosity toward the party. When protest leader Wael Ghonim was released on Monday, Feb. 7, after 12 days in detention, he was greeted by new NDP chief Hossam Badrawi, the symbol of the party's new reformist stance. Ghonim later said that he told Badrawi the only way he could respect him is if he resigned from the NDP. "I told him, 'I don't want to see the National Democratic Party logo in any street in Egypt. I don't want to see another NDP,'" Ghonim said in a televised interview.
Like the NDP, Egypt's massively wealthy crop of private-sector titans also owes their position, power, and profit to Mubarak's machine. But the economic toll of two weeks of unrest is still being calculated. The stock market lost 16 percent of its value before the government shut it down; it won't reopen until Feb. 13. The Egyptian pound is at a six-year low, and the vital flow of foreign tourists has disappeared at the start of what should be the high season. A report from Crédit Agricole estimated that the standoff was costing Egypt $310 million per day.
If foreign investors start pulling their money out of Egypt, some of the country's oligarchs might begin brainstorming about immediate alternatives -- if they aren't doing that already. They may seek to nudge Mubarak off the stage while preserving the basic architecture of the system that made them wealthy.
One key indicator to watch: some of the wealthiest tycoons, like Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Bahgat, also own newspapers and television stations that could be used to bolster either the government or the protesters. Bahgat's Dream TV, for example, gave an open forum to the newly released Ghonim on Monday night, and his tearful, sincere, and emotionally raw interview helped galvanize the existing protesters and may have drawn thousands more off the fence.
The Interior Ministry remains loyal to Mubarak. But the value of that support has been greatly reduced. One of the primary narratives about the first week of protests is that the police lost its ability to control the people, and the people shook off their long-standing fear of the police state. Dozens of police stations were torched on Jan. 28, when Mubarak summoned the Army in a tacit admission that the Interior Ministry had been defeated.
Some police officers have reappeared on the streets in a positive role, directing traffic and working with volunteer neighborhood watch groups. But the protesters uniformly believe that plainclothes officers from the police and state security are still actively trying to infiltrate the Tahrir crowds to spy or act as provocateurs. The multiple ID checks that take place before anyone can enter Tahrir are partially meant to bar anyone employed by the Interior Ministry.
There are signs that the police are seeking to return to society on a more humble footing, having apologized for their excesses. Cell-phone users on Wednesday, Feb. 9, received a text message from the Interior Ministry saying, "From today our dealings with you will be with honesty, trust and lawfulness."
This is the true wild card going forward. Army troops have seemingly retained their loyalty, but they haven't yet been asked to do anything that commanders could potentially object to, such as shooting their fellow Egyptians. Mubarak, a former Air Force commander and war hero, has deep ties with the military and has always ensured that his commanders are well compensated and cared for. New Vice President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq also come from its ranks.
Like the oligarchs, the Army has profited handsomely under Mubarak's system. It is one of the country's biggest landowners and receives a healthy share of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. funding. But if he proves unviable going forward, it may seek to gently remove him while retaining its position and perks. So far, the Army has kept its promise not to fire on the protesters, while working to ensure the safety of the many government buildings and ministries that surrounded the Tahrir area.
The protesters, meanwhile, seem a little split on whether to actually trust the Army's intentions. When I asked Ahmad Abdalla, a young movie director, last week what his biggest concern was, he said, "The Army. I hope they don't do a U-turn. I don't think they will." It's worth noting that according to multiple first-person accounts, many of the recent arrests and dentitions of journalists and human rights activists were carried out by the military police.
The Opposition Parties
Some leaders of Egypt's generally marginalized and toothless opposition parties have been willing to engage Mubarak's new government in talks. Those talks have produced no tangible results yet. But even if they did, most of these parties hold no credibility with the majority of Tahrir protesters -- who regard them as part of the same corrupt pseudo-democratic facade. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, does have the authority to speak for at least a portion of the Tahrir protesters, and its representatives have met with the government at least once. But it seems to be holding to the protesters' line that no meaningful negotiations can begin until Mubarak leaves.
Regardless of whoever is doing the negotiating, the crowds in Tahrir will remain vigilant for any backroom deal that falls short of that minimum demand.
The United States
After a week of muddled public statements, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration seems to have settled on the idea that Mubarak should go, but not necessarily immediately. The sudden violence of last week -- when pro-Mubarak gangs attacked the Tahrir protesters and international journalists -- seemed to anger the Obama administration, which flatly stated that the attacks were coordinated. It didn't say by whom, but the implication was fairly clear.
Last week's ascension of the powerful Suleiman (a former intelligence chief) to vice president could potentially reassure the Americans. Suleiman has deep ties to Washington, and as the WikiLeaks cables revealed, he was a key liaison in the rendition of suspected terrorists overseas for torture and interrogation.
There were cheers in Tahrir when Obama first stated that an "orderly transition" was necessary, but the overall attitude of many protesters toward Americans isn't so much antipathy as cynical mistrust. They don't really seem to want Washington's help in bringing down Mubarak and would probably prefer it if the United States simply got out of their way. As one sign in Tahrir put it on Tuesday, "Dear America, we're doing fine without you."
Mubarak is no doubt conducting his own checklist these days as he marshals his strength and support. One of the world's most entrenched strongmen in his time, he now finds himself fighting for the right to simply leave on his own terms.
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