The pharaoh strikes back

The last day or two demonstrates that Mubarak has no intention of going down without a fight. At the same time, Egypt's Prime Minister has expressed regret for the loss of life and is pledging an orderly transition. Where does this leave us?

First of all, the events in the past day or two confirm a point I've made before: revolutionary upheavals are very hard to predict and the final outcome often isn't determined for weeks or months or even years.  I was obviously wrong about the potential for contagion from the original Tunisian catalyst, but not about the fact that authoritarian governments are often able to ride out these storms. I'm not saying that Mubarak will (and as I said a couple of days ago, I think the regime is fatally compromised even if he does hang on), but the past day or two reminds us that the regime is not without resources. To repeat myself further, the danger is that the onset of a significant violence will create a situation where extremists on both sides feel empowered, resulting in far more extensive damage to Egypt's social order.

From a U.S. perspective, I'm with FP colleague Marc Lynch.  If Obama goes wobbly at this point, he'll look even weaker than many people in the Middle East already assume he is.  Given that Mubarak is beginning to do exactly what Obama asked him not to do, now's the time to distance ourselves even further. Obama should announce an immediate suspension of military aid to Egypt, while ordering the Pentagon to send a quiet message to Egyptian military commanders that aid will resume as soon as Mubarak steps down. We are playing the long game here, and need to take clear steps to ensure that we are not seen as complicit in dictatorial repression. Here I'm standing by my earlier remarks about the likely strategic consequences

From the perspective of the Egyptian leadership-and especially the new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, how do things look? Nobody is sharing any secrets with me, but I can still speculate.   I caught part of an interview that Suleiman gave on Al Jazeera English (which has been indispensable throughout this crisis), and I thought he was doing his best to sound reasonable and to hold out the prospect of substantial reform but in an orderly manner. The problem, as I noted yesterday, is that neither Mubarak nor Suleiman (a long-time Mubarak associate who runs the intelligence services) has much (any?) credibility as a reformer. If Suleiman really wants to lead an orderly transition via constitutional reforms and September elections, therefore, the smartest thing he could do is to get Mubarak to leave power now, take credit for having done so, and then to govern openly and explicitly as a caretaker. That's just about the only way that Suleiman could gain a bit of credibility and legitimacy, and it might just make it possible to conduct a reform effort that could command broad acceptance.

One last point. In today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne says that Obama's handling of this crisis will ultimately be judged by whether we get an anti-American/anti-Israel outcome or not.  In his words, "Obama will be judged by results. If the Egyptian uprising eventually leads to an undemocratic regime hostile to the United States and Israel, the president will pay the price." I think he's right as a matter of practical politics, but this view also reflects the widespread assumption that the United States government has the capacity to determine the outcome of unruly political processes of the sort we are now witnessing in Egypt. This is silly: Nobody is in control of events there, nobody knows how it will turn out, and it's quite possible that we'll get either a good outcome or a bad outcome no matter what the United States government does. That doesn't mean the USG shouldn't try to shape events to the extent that we can, but we should not forget that our capacity to mold them is inherently limited.  

I'm all for holding leaders accountable, especially when they do foolish things entirely on their own initiative (like invading Iraq). But we would do a better job of judging our leaders' performance if we acknowleged that presidents are neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

Stephen M. Walt

Mubarak speaks! (people don't listen)

There's a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who'd like me to turn my attention elsewhere...

If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte's seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?). 

In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there's a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn't think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that's why the reports I'm seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish) is worrisome.

I watched Mubarak's speech live yesterday afternoon, and I came away thinking that it is too bad he no longer has any credibility or legitimacy with the popular forces. In an ideal world, it would be good if Mubarak were able to remain the head of a caretaker government and allow for an extended period of preparation for a truly free and fair election. You can't just stand up workable parties and a free media overnight, and figuring out how to create proper democratic institutions takes some time. To be sure, there are a variety of nascent political forces still left in Egypt, and some of them (including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd, etc.) have long histories of grass-roots mobilization and political organizing.  It's also clear that the popular forces that have driven the current upheaval have an under-appreciated capacity to coordinate activities. But creating a stable and legitimate order isn't something anyone can do in week or two, especially when the existing government has been marginalizing and suppressing political expression for a long time.  

Just look at how hard it has been and how long it has taken to restore some semblance of "normal" politics in Iraq. I'm not saying the two situations are identical; but the history of mass revolution reminds us that we are still in the early stages, and creating workable and legitimate institutions isn't child's play.

The problem, of course, is that nobody in Egypt would trust Mubarak not to have his thumb on the scale. Even if he has pledged not to run himself, everyone will worry that he'll try to pick the winner and that genuine reform will be put off yet again. So the demonstrators haven't been mollified a bit by yesterday's speech, and there's no good reason why they should have been. 

Lastly, if I were looking at one indicator to gauge my degree of optimism or pessimism, I'd be watching the Egyptian army. By most accounts it has held together as an institution, and it remains a respected element of society. By refraining from a violent crackdown, and by tacitly endorsing at least some of the aims of the protestors, it has preserved that position. Thus, the army may be able to serve as a unifying and stabilizing force through the transition period, especially if its members don't simply to recreate Mubarakism with a different figurehead. But if the army splits, or goes over to full-scale repression, then things are going to get really ugly.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images