January 31, 2011

The Last Trick Up Mubarak's Sleeve

By Victor Kotsev, published in Asia Times Online:

TEL AVIV - "Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as 'the president who lost Iran'," Israeli analyst Aluf Benn wrote on Sunday. "Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who 'lost' Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled."

Comparing Obama and Carter is a common theme among Israeli analysts. While Benn qualifies his own comparison by pointing out that "unlike Carter, who preached human rights even when it hurt allies, Obama sat on the fence and exercised caution", there is a widespread perception in Israel that Obama is overly idealistic, doesn't understand the Middle East well, and his policies will bring about a disaster, both for the United States and for the Jewish state.

The fear behind this perception is that Muslim masses are not ready for democracy, and that if unleashed on their current autocratic rulers, they will create militant theocratic societies, as happened during the Iranian revolution of 1979. In fact, some analysts see Iran as benefiting and taking advantage of the events to expand its own influence.

Both assumptions can be disputed: for example, the Egyptian opposition has tried hard to distance itself from exclusively religious slogans, and has largely united behind the secular Mohamed ElBaradei. However, from a geopolitical point of view, the broader conclusion that Egypt is lost as an ally probably holds, at least in the short- and mid-term.

Should the protesters take power, even in the best-case scenario it will take time to forge new relationships on all levels. There is every indication that the new government would be reserved towards Egypt's former allies, and at worst, even animosity can be expected.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main opposition forces (and possible coalition partner), has frequently threatened in the past to annul the peace treaty with Israel; for the first time since the start of the demonstrations, reports surfaced on Sunday that the protesters were turning their anger on the US and Israel.

Paradoxically, the American administration interfered mostly on the side of the protesters. It is impossible to verify reports that the US "backed Egypt uprising planners", but in the past few days, Obama put a lot of pressure on the Egyptian president to announce broad reforms, to allow freedom of expression and to unblock communications such as cellular phones, access to the Internet and social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter). The Americans even reportedly threatened to reduce their military aid for Egypt, currently around US$1.3 billion a year, if Mubarak failed to comply.

According to Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch, "the [US] administration ... is trying hard to protect the protestors from an escalation of violent repression, giving Mubarak just enough rope to hang himself, while carefully preparing to ensure that a transition will go in the direction of a more democratic successor." When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Sunday that "we want to see an orderly transition [in Egypt]… that will bring about a democratic participatory government," and Obama himself later supported her comments, their remarks only strengthened this impression.

This is why, should a new regime in Egypt turn against the US, Obama would get a lot of the blame. For the very same reason, should the regime survive - this currently remains a possibility - Egypt would prove to be a very unruly ally, to say the least. Mubarak is not known to tolerate betrayal, and this is how he will view the actions of his close ally.

The battle is far from over. In the words of The New York Times, "More than at perhaps any other point since the uprising began, the tumult Sunday seemed perched between two deepening narratives: a vision of impending anarchy offered by the government, and echoed by many Egyptian fearing chaos, against the perspective of protesters and many others that the uprising had become, as they described it in a list of demands posted in Liberation Square on Sunday, 'a popular revolution'."

After the police forces were overwhelmed on Friday and the army stepped in, the former disappeared from the streets of several major cities, and a period of lawlessness and looting set in. During attacks on several prisons, an unknown number of prisoners broke out. Looters attacked the Egyptian museum and damaged two mummies. "Thieves raped my daughter in front of my eyes, without showing mercy," a resident of Cairo, Said Mahmoud, told Ynet. Up to 60 rapes were reported, and many citizens organized neighborhood watch groups armed with clubs and knives.

These scenes, amplified by the state media, caused many to have second thoughts. Sunday's demonstrations were reported to be palpably smaller than those of the previous days. Still, a sizeable core group of protesters (estimated at 20,000 in Tahrir Square) persisted through the night, united around the figure of ElBaradei, and continued to call on Mubarak to step down. A fresh detachment of elite tank units was dispatched to the square, but did not fire on the crowd. The protesters distanced themselves from the atrocities, organized human chains to protect the museum, and blamed the looting and jailbreaks on instigation by the secret police.

It is possible that parts of Mubarak's security apparatus, with or without his consent, took part in instigating the chaos. This would echo what has happened in similar circumstances in countless other places, and, if executed stealthily, could damage the support base of the protesters. American think-tank Stratfor reports, "Egyptian plainclothes police allegedly were behind a number of the jailbreaks, robberies of major banks and the spread of attacks and break-ins in high-class neighborhoods."

According to Stratfor, there is a rivalry between the Egyptian army and police. The army is a symbol of national unity, and large parts of it sympathize with the protesters in varying degrees. During the last days, there were many instances of soldiers joining the rallies, and pictures circulate of protesters carrying junior officers on their shoulders.

The police, on the other hand, are widely perceived as an instrument of oppression. Even though it was overwhelmed on Friday, it is very well organized and diverse. Its sudden disappearance from the streets is by itself strange. Despite that it is hard to verify the reports - and unreasonable to blame all looting on the police - it seems that the regime anticipated the chaos and wanted the people to start missing the police a little.

If successful, this strategy could give Mubarak one last chance to turn the tide. On Sunday morning, he seemed broken down; the appointment of his confidante and intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman as vice president - a post that has been vacant for 30 years - was widely interpreted as a prelude to a transition of power. Chaos was rampant and rumors circulated that he had left Cairo. Even the American administration had apparently written him off.

However, Obama may possibly have jumped the gun. Mubarak is one of the world's oldest and most experienced leaders. While many described him as disconnected from reality, he was possibly laying low and waiting for the opportune moment to play his last remaining cards.

Stratfor also reports that on Monday, the police will be back in many places. This will be a crucial test for Mubarak's strategy. It will also be a test for the relationship between the army and the various forces of the Interior Ministry. We should also keep in mind the question how the appointment of a government dominated by the military might play into the internal intrigues.

As I argued in my previous story Days of rage in Egypt (Asia Times Online, January 28, 2011), another decisive factor is how well the protesters will be able to organize and rally around clearly-defined goals. Stratfor seems to believe they are not: "The demonstrators are deeply divided among themselves and thus far do not appear to have been able to generate the type of mass movement that toppled the Shah of Iran's regime in 1979."

The situation remains extremely volatile. Even if Mubarak survives the protests, he is reportedly very ill, and may well step down in the near future. What all this will mean for Egypt's foreign policy is unclear. Israeli analysts have speculated that Israel might need to revamp its operational doctrine and to beef up its forces in the south. In Stratfor's analysis:
If Egypt were to abrogate the Camp David Accords and over time reconstruct its military into an effective force, the existential threat to Israel that existed before the treaty was signed would re-emerge. This would not happen quickly, but Israel would have to deal with two realities. The first is that the Israeli military is not nearly large enough or strong enough to occupy and control Egypt. The second is that the development of Egypt's military would impose substantial costs on Israel and limit its room for maneuver.

However, a close - and perhaps informal - short-term alliance between Egypt and Israel is not inconceivable under certain circumstances. If Mubarak survives, he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well find themselves in the same boat of American allies that Obama has picked a fight with (Netanyahu has campaigned among world leaders to go easy on Mubarak, the Israeli Ha'aretz daily newspaper reported early on Monday). The two leaders would also have a common grudge against Hamas, which, according to reports, broke the Egyptian blockade of Gaza during the past days and attempted to form a new front against Mubarak.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind the Iranian standoff. It doesn't seem so far that Iran is directly involved in the tumult in Egypt. However, if Israel is threatened with a new, if hypothetical and removed in time, front in the south, would that draw resources away from the Iranian crisis, or would it make it more urgent? It is hard to answer this question right away, but clues will most likely emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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