February 11, 2011 9:35 am

Mubarak steers a crisis toward its climax

Egypt’s president is not giving up easily, writes Jon Alterman

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak didn’t blink. In the face of protests that extended all over the country, he did not relinquish power. His stubborn refusal to move now sets the stage for a confrontation between Egypt’s security forces and the protesters. The winner remains deeply uncertain. What is clear, however, is that Mr Mubarak and, in particular, the army, are not going to give up easily.

Evidence of military strength was seen in Thursday’s issuance of the Supreme Military Council’s “Military Decree Number One”, which some analysts read as a coup in the making. Another way to interpret the move, however, is as a veiled threat of martial law, if protesters do not desist.

The abundance of former military officers in the new cabinet reminds the casual observer of what Egyptians have long known to be true: that the military establishment continues to run Egypt, as it has since a coup put them in power in 1952. The retired generals may wear suits, but they are generals all the same.

For foreign governments, this leaves a profound dilemma. Western governments, led by the US, are sympathetic to the protesters, but have been shown to lack the tools to be much help. There is talk of reviewing aid relationships and the like. But in the near term the only tool they have to work with is statements, and those have limited effect.

The protesters are also hard to help. They have no clear leadership, and no clear agenda except for the president’s departure. Western governments are good at the work of governance – the committee meetings, memoranda, constitutional clauses and technical assistance – but ill-prepared to steer or channel the rage of the street.

Yet if the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square wake up angry this morning, the rulers of neighbouring countries will have slept soundly. Arab governments are rooting for their colleagues in Cairo. A democratic revolution there would shake their certainty in the status quo, and further inspire populations from Morocco to Oman.

The surest way to promote stability, in their mind, is simple: a failed revolt, and the triumph of order over chaos. Mr Mubarak is not the most repressive of them, by far. Their instinct is for greater control, not greater freedom. Yet this is precisely the outcome western governments hope to avoid – and precisely the one they believe will mean greater instability in the long term.

But that is the long term. In the near term, a genuine crisis is dawning. In some ways both sides in this confrontation believe time is on their side. The security forces look back at their successful efforts controlling past protests. Even opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei is calling for their intervention. The protesters, meanwhile, look forward and see history on their side.

Yet in between both groups sits Mr Mubarak, vowing again that he will be buried in the country of his birth; the one he has served for 62 years. For all of his words of empathy towards the protesters in his speech on Thursday evening, he clearly neither sees their urgency nor understands their anger. He sees himself as a war hero; a great statesman of the Middle East; a wily survivor counselling presidents and kings half his age. Who are they to push him to go?

The great tragedy of Mr Mubarak’s presidency is that he spent 30 years trying to avoid precisely this moment. Seemingly fearful of challenges to his rule, he ensured that Egypt has no charismatic leaders, no opposition politicians, no popular technocrats who can carry on in his absence. His retinue is loyal, but they are also old and unimaginative. There is no transition plan, and there never was one. Now, as Egypt’s revolt drifts into deadlock, either the army or the protesters will have to create one.

The writer is a former special assistant on near eastern affairs at the US Department of State, and director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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