Day of Departure?

by zunguzungu

The argument against US involvement in what is happening in Egypt is either that we can’t change the course of events or that we shouldn’t. Juan Cole, here, comes pretty close to arguing that we can’t:

Mubarak’s slap in the face of President Obama will not be punished and it is nothing new. It shows again American toothlessness and weakness in the Middle East, and will encourage the enemies of the US to treat it with similar disdain. The tail has long wagged the dog in American Middle East policy. The rotten order of the modern Middle East has been based on wily local elites stealing their way to billions while they took all the aid they could from the United States, even as they bit the hand that fed them.

I think that this kind of cynicism is too easy, but let’s put it aside; it’s not really an answerable question, at least not from where I sit. The argument that the US shouldn’t intervene, on the other hand, seems to come from a different place, a sense that Bush’s “regime change” in Iraq means that Obama is constrained not to play king-maker in Egypt. That seems like a bit of a non-sequitur, since the US has been playing that game for decades, and can hardly pretend it’s hands are clean now. But let’s put that aside as well; it seems irrelevant right now, since the US clearly is becoming more involved. Senator Leahy, yesterday, said that the aid “pipeline” will be turned off if Mubarak doesn’t step down:

“Time has run out, and the options that might have been available to President Mubarak three or four years ago are not there now. It is unrealistic to think he can wait until elections in September. It also does not help his position to have people — actually thugs — in the street that appear to be government sponsored…We have a lot of aid in the pipeline now. That pipeline will be turned off. There is nobody — Republican or Democratic — in the Senate or I suspect in the House that is going to vote for an aid package for Egypt under these circumstances…Aid will continue to Egypt if you have someone who’s come in with credibility who is trying to help the people, trying to help those who are unemployed, those who are not being fed.”

And alongside the Kerry/McCain resolution — in all its non-binding peacock glory — the New York Times is now reporting that:

The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately, turning over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

And editorialized to the effect that:

Mr. Mubarak has lost the legitimacy to continue governing Egypt, but he has chosen survival over his people. He told ABC that he had to stay in office to avoid chaos. In fact, his continued presence ensures only more chaos and instability.

Mubarak was likely finished days ago, and certainly he’s finished now in any but the most Mugabe-esque scenario. But we shouldn’t forget that his departure has been on the near horizon for years. He is, after all, an old man, and hasn’t been in the best of health for some time. Last July, in an article whose seeming prescience testifies to how long in the making this revolution has been, The Economist noted that:

Mr Mubarak is 82 years old, and in recent years he has spent much of his time away from Cairo, at the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. His health is not good. Even before an operation in Germany took him out of action for six weeks this spring, Egypt’s president had suffered bouts of illness in full view of the public. In 2003 he collapsed while making a speech at the People’s Assembly, prompting the defence minister to lock MPs in the chamber until doctors had revived the president in an anteroom. Last year, upset by the recent death of a grandson, Mr Mubarak appeared ashen-faced and seemingly too infirm to descend some steps to greet an important visitor, Barack Obama.

And suggested that while Mubarak’s son and Omar Suleiman have been named as possible successors, regime loyalists like them might have difficulty retaining power:

Most Egyptians now see their society as starkly divided, with the regime mostly looking after the interests of the rich but pretending to represent the poor. An imminent generational shift may help to change that. Younger Egyptians have been spared the punishing experience of war, reject reliance on the state and are increasingly linked to each other and to the world through the internet, satellite TV and mobile communications. More sceptical, self-reliant, ambitious and socially engaged than their elders, they have grown impatient for a voice and a role. Recent years have seen a strong expansion in volunteer programmes, charity initiatives and protest groups, as well as a remarkable revival in the independent art scene…Such energies have yet to be tapped politically, but the potential is there. For example, even if Mohamed ElBaradei’s bid to challenge the regime fizzles, the instant surge in enthusiasm for this former bureaucrat who shuns populist talk carried its own message.

And the article ends with this little stab at representing the  zeitgeist on the street:

A popular joke reveals much about Egypt’s current state of mind. God is reading a newspaper when it suddenly strikes him that Hosni Mubarak has been at Egypt’s helm for nearly three decades. He instructs the archangel Gabriel to go down and tell the president that it is time for him to take leave of his people. “Oh really?” says Mr Mubarak, completely unfazed. “Where are they going?” The president has a point. His people are moving, slowly but inexorably. Thanks largely to him, only God knows where.

God knows where. Truly, the Orient is inscrutable, no? This is the voice of those for whom “instability” and “chaos” are far, far worse than authoritarian repression, torture, censorship, and class warfare from above. This is the audience Mubarak was aiming for when he told Obama (reportedly):

“You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now…If I resign today, there will be chaos.”

And this is more than just the usual apres moi, le deluge that we are accustomed to hear from crumbling dictators struggling to maintain power, or at least it represents a particular version of it. We have seen, over and over again, a rhetorical campaign to represent the “chaos” and “instability” of Egypt as something intrinsic to its Orientalist essence, something from which only a dictator — or some kind of safe Western-ish friend of the USA like Suleiman — can protect us. As Allen Feldman pointed out, for example, it hasn’t just been “chaos” and “instability” that the regime-backed thugs have tried to produce pictures of. They have been staging Orientalist theater:

Consider the recent violent image making by the Egyptian state in its staging of counterinsurgency terror in mufti. I refer to the charging of Liberation square in Cairo by thugs on horses  and camels, and by vigilantes on foot armed with home made swords.  This is deliberate Orientalist theater  orchestrated by the state to promote a picture of generalized anti- modern anarchy for western media consumption. These mounted and pedestrian thugs are being imported from nearby rural areas, released from prisons and recruited from security forces in civilian drag.  (The mounted thugs are described by apologists for the state as disgruntled tour guides who sell rides on camels and horses protesting their loss of income. But why expose your  valuable mount to harm and injury by charging a crowd if these animals are a prime source of income) .

The current posture of the army with their tanks, armored cars and water hoses as the placid embodiment of modern techno-rationality is now clear–they are waiting for the  protests  to devolve into murky street fighting before intervening to demobilize the democratic opposition if this does not previously occur on its own for fear of vigilante attacks.  The major ideological weakness of the protestors has been their belief that the military is essentially a populist institution; this faith will be betrayed as was already signaled by the jet planes that previously harried the protests.

I mean, seriously, camels? The real face of the violence, if you ask me, is this video of an interior ministry van running at full speed through a crowd (a clip I watched and then wish I hadn’t, for what it’s worth, so beware). And of course, while Andrew Sullivan passed along a series of “protests turn medieval!” quotes from various journalists, something like this is actually the opposite of what it might, too easily, seem to be:

It might seem “medieval” for a catapult to show up on the streets of Cairo. But have you ever tried to build a catapult? It’s hard. This is what happens when you get a bunch of engineers standing around with nothing to do. I’d give dollars to donuts these guys have not a few degrees between them, but at the very least, these are people organizing matter into place. This is what human beings do, not Orientalist caricatures. They make things. They build things. And they want to be able to do so as they please. That’s the opposite of the power-hungry cruelty the regime has displayed, which is the thing people think they mean when they use the word “medieval.”  As Blogger and “micro-celebrity” @sandmonkey, for example (more macro-famous yesterday for his blog, and then for having been picked up and beaten up by police in Cairo)  tweeted:

“One group is peaceful and uses technology, the other is violent and uses rocks to smash your head. Which side do u wanna take?”

And as @wedaddy — Nasser Wedaddy, activist and writer — pointed out on twitter,

“a lot of the DC “stability” crowd is solidly on the side of the donkey & camels we saw in Tahrir”

It’s hard to tell who’s winning the campaign, really, but the earliest signs are encouraging: the regime’s indiscriminate beatings and targeted detentions of journalists have almost certainly backfired, and the stark contrast between pro-Mubarak thugs and pro-democracy protesters has only become more and more stark. Not to mention that its hard to portray the pro-democracy rallies as scary mooslems when you have images of Coptic Christians joining hands to protect Muslims as they pray, or the now-iconic image of fire-houses being turned on lines of praying protests. The strategic restraint of the Muslim Brotherhood has been programmatic and effective, making it difficult to portray them as the second coming of Al Qaeda (the fact that they renounced violence years ago helps, as does the fact that they blatantly are not Al Qaeda).

So what now? If you’re not watching Al Jazeera, you are behind, and you are even then. They reported on Al Jazeera that the numbers of Egyptians on the street right now — as I type — could be as much as five million, which seems high. But the number is irrelevant: there are more Egyptians on the street calling for Hosni Mubarak’s departure than anyone could ever have imagined a week ago, certainly more than the Economist ever could have predicted. We are in a new place now — or, rather, Egyptians are — and events are moving faster than anyone with a keyboard or a microphone can possibly follow. And the White House, too, is reacting to events that have overtaken them.

After all, they want to install “a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military,” which is to say, they want to crown the long-time regime loyalist who was not only personally selected by Hosni Mubarak but who has likely been overseeing the violence and repression personally. As Juan Cole put it, “How stupid do they think we are?”:

Mubarak, Shafiq and VP Omar Suleiman almost certainly sat down in a room and authorized the Ministry of Interior to try out that brutal assault on peaceful protesters. Proof 1: The Interior Ministry in a dictatorship doesn’t go off on rogue missions; these things are tightly controlled from the top. Proof 2: The regular army stood aside and allowed the goons to attack the demonstrators, allowing them through checkpoints for their murderous mission. Soldiers do what they are ordered to do.

The constitution dictates, by the way, that the speaker of parliament would take over if the President steps down, so crowning a “transitional govenrment” made up of Suleiman would be — and this is worth repeating — a deal struck between President Obama (who has no mandate) and the dictator that everyone regards as having no legitimacy. This would be the United States crowning a man as president of Egypt who lacks even the vaguest trappings of democratic legitimacy, and a man who is mainly known for personally overseeing torture and for partnering with the USA in doing so. Jane Mayer summarizes:

As I described in my book “The Dark Side,” since 1993 Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.

As laid out in greater detail by Stephen Grey, in his book “Ghost Plane,” beginning in the nineteen-nineties, Suleiman negotiated directly with top Agency officials. Every rendition was greenlighted at the highest levels of both the U.S. and Egyptian intelligence agencies. Edward S. Walker, Jr., a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, described Suleiman as “very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way.”

Technically, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek “assurances” from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless. As Michael Scheuer, a former C.I.A. officer who helped set up the practice of rendition, later testified before Congress, even if such “assurances” were written in indelible ink, “they weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.”

Does anyone think that the millions of Egyptians who have put their bodies in harm’s way, a peaceful and popular uprising for democracy almost without parallel in our time, were doing it so that they could exchange the crumbling regime of Mubarak for… the same regime, only now with his right hand man in charge? Does anyone think that Obama’s cooperation in this changing of the guard is anything close to what we might call “democracy”?

I don’t, but I also don’t really have any idea what’s going on. Like Obama, like you, I am watching as events transform the world we live in, as we come to see what it is that words like “the people” were coined to signify.

The idea that the people in that crowd would accept Suleiman as president — even with some kind of assurance that he’ll start taking steps towards democracy, honest! — seems profoundly dubious to me. It seems to me like the kind of inverse paranoia I talked about here, where the things we don’t know confirms everything we’d like to be true, allowing us to forget history and live in fantasy land. I don’t know (and you can quote me on that), but I can’t imagine that this is what these people were fighting for. We’ll see. Soon we’ll know more.

So let’s put that aside, too. What would it mean if Suleiman became President (as Obama seems to want)? For Robert Springborg, it would mean that the chance for democracy in Egypt has been lost:

Millions of demonstrators in the street have not broken the chain of command over which President Mubarak presides. Paradoxically the popular uprising has even ensured that the presidential succession will not only be engineered by the military, but that an officer will succeed Mubarak. The only possible civilian candidate, Gamal Mubarak, has been chased into exile, thereby clearing the path for the new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman. The military high command, which under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system, can now breathe much more easily than a few days ago. It can neutralize any further political pressure from below by organizing Hosni Mubarak’s exile, but that may well be unnecessary.

The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration. They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy.

As Paul Amar carefully lays out, Suleiman represents an internal shifting of power within the regime, and Amar’s effort to map out “the moving parts within the military and police institutions of the security state and how clashes within and between these coercive institutions relate to shifting class hierarchies and capital formations” is the best thing I’ve so far read. You should read the whole thing, but the central point, I think, is this:

The Armed Forces of the Arab Republic of Egypt are quite unrelated to the Markazi or police and see themselves as a distinct kind of state altogether. One could say that Egypt is still a “military dictatorship” (if one must use that term) since this is still the same regime that the Free Officers’ Revolution installed in the 1950s. But the military has been marginalized since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel and the United States. Since 1977, the military has not been allowed to fight anyone. Instead, the generals have been given huge aid payoffs by the US. They have been granted concessions to run shopping malls in Egypt, develop gated cities in the desert and beach resorts on the coasts. And they are encouraged to sit around in cheap social clubs.

These buy-offs have shaped them into an incredibly organized interest group of nationalist businessmen. They are attracted to foreign investment; but their loyalties are economically and symbolically embedded in national territory. As we can see when examining any other case in the region (Pakistan, Iraq, the Gulf), US military-aid money does not buy loyalty to America; it just buys resentment. In recent years, the Egyptian military has felt collectively a growing sense of national duty, and has developed a sense of embittered shame for what it considers its “neutered masculinity:” its sense that it was not standing up for the nation’s people.  The nationalistic Armed Forces want to restore their honor and they are disgusted by police corruption and baltagiya brutality. And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists,” have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.

Thus we can see why in the first stage of this revolution, on Friday 28 January, we saw a very quick “coup” of the military against the police and Central Security, and disappearance of Gamal Mubarak (the son) and of the detested Interior Minister Habib el-Adly.

And as Benjamin Orbach elaborates:

At this point in the standoff, it is clear that the regime has made its internal deals and that succession has passed over Mubarak’s son. The military – Egypt’s strongest institution – would have been shamed by the father passing the baton to his son. Egyptians are proud of their history and the turning of their faux-Republic into a Syrian-styled family business would not have been acceptable. This democratic moment preempted that discomfort for the military, and its mission is accomplished. While not securing his son’s throne must surely have been a bitter pill for Mubarak, his redline is undoubtedly a refusal to die in exile as a banished villain, to be sent away like a 21st Century version of King Farouk.  The regime has dug in, and the brass has little stake in a continued confrontation.

At the same time, these Egyptian everyday heroes have lived a dream this past week. They’ve come together in the power of numbers, bound by common frustrations and propelled by common hopes. When the protests first began, they never could have hoped to gather this type of lasting attention and to win back such dignity. They’ve been kicked for years and they finally stood up and said no more. Their movement has morphed, though, from making a show of pride to changing the reality of their country and the way their government operates.

Tomorrow, after Friday prayer, will be a big day. Without the protection of the White House, I don’t think the pro-democracy forces will tip the balance. There are times when we have to ask what side of history do we want to be on? Supporting human rights and governing democratically are pillars of the identity we espouse as a country. You can argue that we risk strategic interests and stability as related to Iraq, the Suez Canal, and Israel by siding with democratic change in this case. I argue that we risk losing the very character of who we are, any claim to American exceptionalism, if we don’t support our friends who are risking their lives, en masse, for their rights.

But to give Paul Amar the last word:

Mubarak is already out of power. The new cabinet is composed of chiefs of Intelligence, Air Force and the prison authority, as well as one International Labor Organization official. This group embodies a hard-core “stability coalition” that will work to bring together the interests of new military, national capital and labor, all the while reassuring the United States. Yes, this is a reshuffling of the cabinet, but one which reflects a very significant change in political direction. But none of it will count as a democratic transition until the vast new coalition of local social movements and internationalist Egyptians break into this circle and insist on setting the terms and agenda for transition. I would bet that even the hard-line leaders of the new cabinet will be unable to resist plugging into the willpower of these popular uprisings, one-hundred million Egyptians strong.