Saturday, February 5, 2011

Obama vs. Mubarak

by Stephen Brown

President Barack Obama poured gas on the Egyptian fire on Wednesday when he demanded that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak immediately resign to make way for a quick transition of power. The administration has been engaged in intense meetings with Egyptian officials in the ensuing days, and is discussing plans for Mubarak’s rapid departure, both the New York Times and Reuters reported. The president’s haste to replace Mubarak, many observers legitimately fear, may now create the political instability that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the only organized opposition in Egypt, needs in order to dominate the transition process and eventually gain power.

With his resignation insistence, Obama, whose obvious sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has not gone unnoticed, has simply made a dangerous situation even worse. The Egyptian army is one of the country’s most stable institutions and now it is being asked by an American president to undermine itself by getting rid of its own leader. (Ironically, it was Obama who, in 2009, said in Cairo that “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other.”) U.S. special envoy Frank Wiesner had already asked Mubarak to step down on Monday, but Mubarak refused, believing such an unpatriotic move on his part would only lead to chaos.

“President Obama has been clear on Egypt that the transition must begin now, and now means now,” a White House spokesperson was quoted as saying after Mubarak’s supporters engaged anti-government protesters in bloody street battles on Wednesday. The clashes started the day after Mubarak told the Egyptian nation he would step down from power in September, and they continued into Thursday. Eight people have died in the violence, which have seen rocks, machetes and guns used.

Indicating the Obama administration’s frustration with the violence and its powerful desire to be rid of Mubarak, the publication DEBKAfile states that pressure was applied directly to the Egyptian army to unseat its president. The White House called up its A Team and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton call Vice President Omar Suleiman, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates phone Egypt’s defense minister and US Chief of Staff Admiral Mullen speak with his Egyptian counterpart. French President Sarkozy, German Chancellor Merkel and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama’s B Team, were also enlisted “to lean hard on Egyptian army chiefs to bring Mubarak’s presidency to an end in the coming hours.”

But at the time of this writing, all appeals had fallen on deaf ears. It appears Mubarak does not intend to go anywhere until he is ready. And the army and security apparatus is fully supporting him in this decision.

As evidence of this, the Mubarak regime has been following a calculated strategy regarding the escalation of violence, in which both the security services and the army have played a part. Last Friday, the government pulled the police from city streets to allow criminal elements free reign. On Wednesday, the army did not interfere when thousands of pro-Mubarak supporters, some riding camels and horses, attacked anti-government demonstrators on Tahrir Square in Cairo. Protesters believe there were both members of the police and paid criminals among the attackers, whose violence, like that of the criminals on Friday, was meant to create a chaos that would demand a “law and order” response, and which would end their presence on the street.

The reason for the army’s passivity in Wednesday’s clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-government protesters is that the military indeed believes it is time for the demonstrations to end. Mubarak said in his speech on Tuesday he will step down in September, so the army now regards any further street protests as superfluous. The demonstrators, in the army’s view, have achieved their stated goal and therefore should now go home and allow order to be restored.

Another important factor in the military’s support of Mubarak is that the Egyptian president is himself a general who is regarded as a hero by Egyptians, especially by the military. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, he was the commander of Egypt’s air force, which performed well in that conflict, although Egypt was defeated. With such service to the nation, which Mubarak alluded to in Tuesday’s speech, many Egyptians therefore believe their president should be allowed to leave office in his own time, with dignity and honor, and not be thrown out like an old sofa.

There is also a large element of self-interest in the Egyptian military’s defiance of the White House. In Third World countries like Egypt, the military also acts as a business corporation. In Pakistan, for example, the army is the largest commercial entity in the country, earning it the sobriquet Military, Inc. The Egyptian military also has substantial interests in areas like construction, tourism and manufacturing, in which retired officers often find employment. Military families also enjoy their own hospitals and schools. So it is unlikely the Egyptian officer corps will heed Obama’s demand to remove Mubarak if such a sudden change will threaten its privileged existence, especially since some in the higher ranks owe their positions to their president as well as their loyalty. If they do succumb to the pressure to dump Mubarak, his replacement will simply be another from their ranks holding a similar outlook and similar values.

The fact Obama is targeting the military to help remove Mubarak indicates he has finally woken up to the fact the army holds the real power in this crisis. But Egypt, he now realizes, is not Tunisia, whose army showed its president the door two weeks after disturbances broke out there. While the Egyptian army did not shoot at the demonstrators, which earned Obama’s praise, it also did not force Mubarak out. Obama is also discovering that Mubarak is an old soldier who will not run away from a fight and, after surviving 30 years in Middle Eastern politics, still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Although he would never do it, Obama should actually heed Mubarak’s warning. An abrupt removal of the Egyptian leader would cause a chaos that would only benefit the Islamists. They are waiting on the sidelines for such a vacuum in power to occur before they make their move. The chaos the Islamists would create would dwarf anything Mubarak’s supporters are doing now and start Egypt down the road to becoming a failed state like Somalia or Pakistan. And such failed states, the world has discovered, become havens for terrorists.

The Islamists are also impatiently waiting for the dissolution of the Egyptian intelligence services, which, under Mubarak, have been so effective against extremists. As their decades-old nemeses, the security branches would be the MB’s first target, if they ever acquired any kind of power. These important agencies already showed a weakening during the current political disturbances when four prisons were attacked and hundreds of Islamists escaped. For Egyptians to succeed in reorganizing their political system, it is of paramount importance that the security services be maintained undamaged, and even strengthened.

Besides not understanding Egyptian society, Obama is also proving he does not learn from history. The deposing of the Tsar in Russia and the Shah in Iran only led those countries down the road to perdition. An untimely removal of Egypt’s pharaoh would only have the same result. And the Muslim Brotherhood has the most to lose if its old enemy, Mubarak, stays on, ensures stability and oversees the transition, while the democratic opposition forces have the most to gain. Inconceivably, though, with the stakes so high, it appears this is not what the White House wants.

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Stephen Brown

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