Voice

Mubarak Leaves at Last

It's frankly hard to believe today's news that Hosni Mubarak has finally stepped down as President of Egypt without a wave of bloodshed.  After yesterday's disappointment and today's anxiety, nothing could have been more welcome.   There will be plenty of time for post-mortems, and there will be an enormous amount of hard work to come to ensure that this actually becomes a transition to democracy and not simply to a reconstituted authoritarian regime.  But for today, it's okay to simply celebrate -- to stand in awe of the Egyptian people and their ability to topple a seemingly impenetrable dictator through massive, peaceful protests.  Nothing will ever be the same, and no Arab will ever forget today's scenes broadcast on al-Jazeera. This was an unprecedented victory for the Egyptian people, and at last a vindication of the Obama administration's patient and well-crafted strategy. 

There is no question that the first, second and third drivers of this Egyptian revolution were the Egyptian people.   The creativity of the youth and their ability to mobilize a wide range of Egyptian society around a common demand against daunting odds are simply an inspiration.  The fact that these massive crowds avoided violence under incredibly tense conditions and under great uncertainty speaks volumes.   This did not come out of nowhere --- Egyptian activists have been mobilizing for change for a decade, with the Kefaya movement deserving enormous credit for breaking the walls of silence and fear and bringing opposition to the Mubarak regime out into the public sphere.  But their success in the face of the power of a strong authoritarian regime was a surprise to everyone -- including to them.   And in the analyses to come, al-Jazeera's role will require a chapter of its own...  time for me to do an updated version of Voices of the New Arab Public!  

The Obama administration also deserves a great deal of credit, which it probably won't receive.  It understood immediately and intuitively that it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance, and consistently deferred to the Egyptian people.   Despite the avalanche of criticism from protestors and pundits, in fact Obama and his key aides -- including Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power and many others -- backed the Egyptian protest movement far more quickly than anyone should have expected.     Their steadily mounting pressure on the Mubarak regime took time to succeed, causing enormous heartburn along the way, but now can claim vindication.  By working carefully and closely with the Egyptian military, it helped restrain the worst violence and prevent Tiananmen on the Tahrir -- which, it is easy to forget today, could very easily have happened.   No bombs, no shock and awe, no soaring declarations of American exceptionalism, and no taking credit for a tidal wave which was entirely of the making of the Egyptian people -- just the steadily mounting public and private pressure on the top of the regime  which was necessary for the protestors to succeed. 

The Obama administration also understood from the start, and has consistently said, that removing Mubarak would not be enough.  It has rejected "faux democracy," and pushed hard for fundamental systemic reforms.  Over the coming days and weeks, it should push for specific changes on a clear timetable: lifting the emergency reform, amending the Constitution, appointing a credible and nonpartisan commission to oversee elections, securing a guarantee from whoever acts as the interim head of state that he will not run for re-election, preventing retaliation against protestors, ensuring the inclusion of opposition figures in the process, and more.   The outcome will be judged on what emerges over months and years to come, not only by today's exhilerating turn of events.   I hope that everyone thrilled by the downfall of the dictator remains attentive and committed to helping bring about the democratic transformation which Egyptians deserve, which serves real American interests, and which could help change the entire region.  

By the way, for those keeping score in the "peacefully removing Arab dictators" game, it's now Obama 2, Bush 0.   The administration has been subjected to an enormous amount of criticism over the last two weeks for its handling of Egypt, including by people inspired by or who worked on the previous administration's Freedom Agenda.  It was also attacked sharply from the left, by activists and academics who assumed that the administration was supporting Mubarak and didn't want democratic change.  In the end, Obama's strategy worked.  Perhaps this should earn it some praise, and even some benefit of the doubt going forward.   And now, a day to celebrate before rolling up the sleeves for the hard work to come. 

UPDATE, 3:56pm:  And here's the transcript of Obama's speech -- which was just outstanding, but I'll discussion of that to others.  

Flickr Creative Commons, February 11, 2011

Marc Lynch

Responding to the Worst Speech Ever

It's hard to exaggerate how bad Hosni Mubarak's speech today was for Egypt.   In the extended runup to his remarks, every sign indicated that he planned to announce his resignation: the military's announcement that it had taken control, the shift in state television coverage, a steady stream of leaks about the speech.   With the whole world watching, Mubarak instead offered a meandering, confused speech promising vague Constitutional changes and defiance of foreign pressure.   He offered a vaguely worded delegation of power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, long after everyone in Egypt had stopped listening.  It is virtually impossible to conceive of a more poorly conceived  or executed speech. 

Omar Suleiman's televised address which followed made things even worse, if that's possible, telling the people to go home and blaming al-Jazeera for the problems.   It solidified the already deep distrust of his role among most of the opposition and of the protestors, and tied his fate to that of Mubarak.    Even potentially positive ideas in their speeches, such as Constitutional amendments, were completely drowned out by their contemptuous treatment of popular demands.   Things could get ugly tonight --- and if things don't explode now, then the crowds tomorrow will be absolutely massive.    Whatever happens, for better or for worse, the prospects of an orderly, negotiated transition led by Omar Suleiman have just plummeted sharply.  

I don't think anyone really knows how things will break in the next 12-36 hours.  It seems pretty clear that most people, from the Obama administration to Egyptian government and opposition leaders, expected Mubarak to announce his departure tonight -- and that they had good reasons to believe that.   That turned out to be wrong.   As I just mentioned on the BBC, I don't think anybody knows what's going on inside Mubarak's head right now, though he certainly seems out of touch with what is really going on.  I suspect that his decision may have changed from earlier in the day, and that people inside the Egyptian military and regime are themselves scrambling to figure out their next move.   If the military has any plans to step in this would be a good time -- especially after the military's communique #1 seemed to suggest that it was breaking in the other direction. 

Obama doesn't have a lot of great options right now.  Its policy of steadily mounting private and public pressure to force Mubarak to leave, and for his successor to begin a meaningful transition to real democratic change, seems to have almost worked.   But for now seems to have foundered on Mubarak's obstinance.    The administration, which is conferring even as I wrote this, can't be silent in the face of Mubarak and Suleiman's disastrous decision.  It needs to continue to pound on its message that it demands that a real transition begin immediately, and to do whatever it can to make that happen now... even if its leverage remains limited.   It should express its sharp disappointment with what it heard today, and continue to push the military to avoid using violence in the tense hours to come.   Mubarak's speech today, with its frequent references to foreign pressure, poses a direct challenge to Obama (and also suggests how much pressure he was in fact receiving).  Those who are suggesting that Obama wanted Mubarak to stay are nuts.  Now it's time to double down on the push for an orderly transition to real democracy before it's too late --- and that is now.  

UPDATE, 9:30pm:   The Cable has posted the full text of President Obama's statement following the Mubarak speech.  It is a strong statement:  "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity. "  The calls to restrain violence and listen to the voice of the Egyptian people are also important.  Let's hope that the message gets through before things get (more) out of control.