This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 03/02/2011
As evidence mounts that the violence in Tahrir Square is a regime-orchestrated attempt to crush dissent and peaceful protest, the manifest flaws in President Mubarak's plan to remain in office are becoming clear. The Egyptian president, under pressure, committed not to run for a sixth presidential term, but refused to begin a serious process of transition. In essence, he was asking the millions of protesters who had taken to Egypt's streets in response to 30 years of authoritarian rule to simply trust him. Based on the violent evidence on display in Cairo today and the actions of the regime since the uprising began on January 25th, the protesters have no reason to do so.
As this repressive rearguard action unfolds, the regime is indicating that it is working to preserve the very system that protesters have given their life to bring down. A regime that ruled by fiat and the baton is now using these same tools to defend its power and privileges. Those who have now offered themselves as the vehicles for systemic changes are the very actors that have thwarted political reform for 30 years. Mubarak's tactical ploy lays bare that he has clearly not understood the calls of the Egyptian people. Now, the very stability prized previously by the United States in its relations with Egypt is no longer possible with Mubarak at the helm. America's long-term ally is now the primary driver of instability.
Mubarak offered several apparent concessions in his speech to the nation in addition to his pledge to depart the presidential palace in September 2011. Most notably, he directed parliament to amend article 76, which places onerous limitations on candidacy for the presidency, and article 77, which had previously placed term limits on the presidency prior to its amendment in 1981. However, his approach reflects an assumption that the current system should survive with minor alterations. It sidestepped questions on the very legitimacy of the parliament asked to carry out such reforms and did not mention the Emergency Law that has been in place since 1981 and continues to provide the government essentially unfettered discretion to arrest, detain, and prosecute individuals. Vetting of government officials culpable of criminal behavior was never addressed. Contrary to Mubarak's gradualism, the masses in the streets are not complaining about fine print, instead they are finished with the entire system.
It took unprecedented mass protest throughout the country to force even minimal concessions -- which should worry opposition figures. They must now be concerned that these meager offerings were secured at the moment of maximum leverage when millions of Egyptians filled the streets of the country to reject the current order. If protests are halted prior to negotiations with the regime, as the new vice president Omar Suleiman has insisted, it is unlikely that the fragile coalition of opposition leaders will be in a position to negotiate major reforms and enact a fundamental break from Egypt's failed system. The regime will now look to divide and conquer tactics in an attempt to fracture what has, so far, largely been a leaderless uprising.
A quick review of the actions of the regime in response to the protests should dispel any and all notions of this regime as a responsible actor capable of initiating reform. In addition to the gratuitous violence directed at demonstrators by the security forces of the Ministry of Interior, the Egyptian government has displayed characteristics previously associated with regimes such as North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Notions of free press and access to information have been have been trampled, with unprecedented steps to block internet and satellite access to Egypt. Meanwhile, Egyptian state television has functioned as a crude propaganda outlet, at a level not seen in Egypt since the regime's ridiculous renderings of imminent military victory during the June 1967 war. These state-sanctioned outlets have worked diligently to portray peaceful protesters as a conspiracy to shake the stability of the state, in an effort to alienate the silent citizenry from active protesters.
Perhaps most egregiously, the regime sought to sow chaos and fear as a means to deter citizens from protesting and to create the impression that demonstrations were a threat to the stability of the state. This was accomplished by emptying large swathes of the country of its police force and directing armed thugs and plainclothes security forces to loot and undermine public safety. While this was dismissed initially by regime defenders, mounting evidence points clearly to government responsibility for much of this activity.
The actions of the Egyptian government should not inspire confidence. If the regime is willing to employ such violence in front of rolling cameras and worldwide attention, the international community should contemplate what the regime will be capable of doing once that attention has faded. With the current regime committing to solely cosmetic changes, those in the Ministry of Interior who have been the primary repressive apparatus for the state will still be in place and will continue to backed by an emergency law granting them essentially unfettered discretion to continue their activities with a much broader list of regime opponents from which to draw.
The state does have constituents in addition to security forces and paid thugs -- people who are worried about their positions in a post-Mubarak Egypt, or who legitimately fear an unstable transition. Mubarak is manipulating their fears, and there is some risk that he will succeed at driving divisions among different classes of disenfranchised Egyptians.
The military has now been implicated by this latest outburst of violence. They had previously declared their respect for the legitimate grievances of the opposition and pledged not to use force against them. The armed forces' ultimate intentions are now much more opaque, as they have appeared to collude with regime-backed elements intent on squelching the protest movement following Mubarak's second address to the nation. One telling example, relayed by an eyewitness, involved military forces deployed in front of the state television building. These forces made way for a crowd of pro-Mubarak demonstrators on horses and camels who exited from the 15th May bridge on their way to confront anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square.
These latest provocations present a complex challenge to Mubarak's key patron and ally, the United States, which has had difficulty coordinating and modulating its message in a quickly-shifting environment. It has also struggled to balance its commitments to its long-time ally with its professed espousal of democratic governance. Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesperson, again indicated that U.S. aid to Egypt would be reviewed on the basis of unfolding events. This is a positive step in affirming that current regime behavior could have ramifications. Both the military in Egypt and the government in Washington are balancing competing interests: protecting unpopular projects and, at the same time, trying to maximize sympathy from the pro-democracy protesters.
However, U.S. military aid is not the sum total of American leverage with Egypt. Despite its diminished regional role, Egypt has continued to be privileged by the United States as a strategic ally. This strategic relationship is prized by the Egyptian regime. In fact, as their regional significance has ebbed, its sole utility as a diplomatic player is now derived from its close bilateral ties with the United States. Shorn of this support, Egypt would be increasingly isolated and irrelevant in the region.
The next step should be a delineation of American red lines, such that there is clarity that a repeat of today's violent episodes would result in definitive action. This should also include a clear public statement that the United States is reappraising its entire strategic relationship with the Egyptian government. While discreet communications remain the lifeblood of diplomacy, relying on such an approach to the Mubarak government at this stage will ensure that the United States, whether rightly or wrongly, is perceived as being complicit with any further regime repression.
This is not to suggest that the United States should be involved actively in brokering Egypt's internal political process. Instead, by weighing in to safeguard the protesters' constitutionally-protected rights to assembly, the United States could assist in establishing a dynamic where the demands of the Egyptian people will be an essential component in the transition to a legitimate government.
In addition to the strategic rationale for maintaining close relations with Egypt, the repression of political opposition and the desultory state of those efforts made the prospect for supporting political reform and democratization in Egypt bleak. This is clearly no longer the case. Egypt is now a country and society transformed, and many of its people have risked their lives to secure their freedom and dignity. The United States and the rest of the international community now have committed allies within Egypt and they should not now turn their backs on the Egyptian people. Taking these necessary steps will help in establishing a legitimate and stable ally that shares some of America's aims, as opposed to the discredited and repressive regime that now threatens its people and the country's stability.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.