Mubarak is a "wise man" says Italy's Berlusconi...Where is Egypt's "transition" really going?

Hosni Mubarak
The protest in Egypt is evolving almost as Mubarak had wanted, but not quite. He probably didn't count on the violence of the pro-Mubarak supporters that turned Tahrir Square into a scene of devastation and death. Much to the horror of the Western world, with the exception of Italy's Berlusconi who defined him a "wise man", a reference point for the United States and stability in the region...

Actually, this brings up another point: how perfectly deplorable Europe has been in this crisis. So far, only the Americans are reacting with a minimum of logic, calling for, in Obama's words, an "orderly transition, NOW!" Europeans echoed this statement only the next day and did so in total disarray, as shown by Berlusconi's comment. Where is Lady Ashton the European Foreign Affairs Minister? She hasn't even visited Tunisia yet and has been conspicuously silent on Egypt. She might yet speak in the following hours but in any case it's too late. The impression we Europeans all got is that Europe does not exist on the international scene. More recently, the Americans have suggested Mubarak resign and let Suleiman, his Vice-president lead the transition. This solution may not work: it has already been rejected by Mubarak's recently appointed Prime Minister.But at least it corresponds to serious diplomatic efforts.

How then did Mubarak play his cards? Very clever. First he made a couple of concessions:  he nominated Suleiman, his trusted Chief of the Secret Police, as Vice-president, thereby signalling he had given up on making his son his successor; and he announced he would not seek re-election in September. To round it off nicely, he made his finance minister offer an "aid package" to relieve poverty and unemployment and he promised he would "reform" the Constitution. He also let Egypt's prosecutor-general put under house arrest two of the most reviled ministers in his previous cabinet and a hated businessman.

Then he got the army to announce on TV on Wednesday morning 5 February that the "message of the protesters had been heard" and that now they should "go home" to resume "a normal life". Since nothing happened and people still crowded symbolic Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, he allowed  - or sent? We'll never know the truth - squadrons of hoodlums on Wednesday afternoon to dislodge them, while the army continued to sit on the side. Actually, this time the army did not remain neutral: it allowed armed men - thugs with knives and batons -  to reach the Square, in contrast to the anti-Mubarak protesters, whom they had allowed in without any arms. And the protest which had been up to that point a joyous celebration of freedom turned into an ugly battle through the night with hundreds of wounded and some dead. The exact numbers have still to surface.

Friday, which was supposed to be "departure day" for Mubarak was a repeat of that scenario. With an escalation in violence: journalists beaten and detained, one Egyptian journalist dead and the Al Jazeera TV bureau burned down. The authorities however made apologies and released the detainees. While continuing on Egyptian TV and on the partially restored Internet a counter campaign to make the point that the Egyptian majority was behind Mubarak.

Thus Mubarak sought to turn himself into a palladin of "law and order". He even told an American news channel that he was tired, that he'd love to go but couldn't because there would be "chaos" if he did...just as I had surmised (and feared) in an earlier post where I evoked a "counter-scenario" which, alas, has come to pass (click here).

Will Mubarak stay to manage the "transition" to a more democratic state?

My guess is that he will. But at this point whether he stays physically in his role as president or passes it on to Suleiman is rather unimportant. The transition has started, neither he nor Suleiman will present themselves to the next presidential elections in September (or so they say). So the protesters, no matter how their protest ends (they say they want to camp on Tahrir Square until Mubarak departs) should be proud of themselves: they really have achieved a victory of sorts.

But how much of a real "transition" it will be is another matter. Several things are obvious: power is in the hands of the military. Who they will support as the new Rais after Mubarak is not yet clear. Suleiman? Maybe, but he's not a young man and someone else could be in the background. How much the military will be willing to hand over power and allow the main institutions of a democracy to be established  - like a free press and a fully representative parliament - is anyone's guess. The military has been in power since 1952, and democracy won't happen overnight.

The West is universally scared of a transition in Egypt. First it was scared that it would be disorderly. Now, it looks like the protest may be reigned in over the next few hours or days. Most Egyptians would probably prefer to accept Mubarak's offer to leave in September. After all, it's just a few months to the new presidential elections. So there's no need to worry about disorder.

But the West is also scared of a transition that would be "too fast", since a secular leadership has not emerged from the protest movement. The fear is that there will be a take-over by the Muslim Brotherhood, who won 20 percent in the 2005 elections (prompting Mubarak's subsequent crackdown on it, banning it from the 2010 elections). Israel has terrifying visions of seeing itself isolated in the region, as it loses its main ally and the peace treaty signed with Egypt 30 years ago goes overboard. Elsewhere in Europe and America, the Muslim Brotherhood is conflated with Al Qaeda and seen as the source of future waves of terrorism.

How real is that threat? Not all that real, according to an interesting article in the New York Times  that I would like to draw your attention to. The article calls it a "bumbling brotherhood", who's missed, since its creation in 1928, every opportunity to seize power. Written by Scott Atran, an anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, and also the author of “Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)making of Terrorists” (Eco Press/HarperCollins), it is a thoughtful article and should be read by anyone who wants to understand something more about the opposition in Egypt. Atran believes their following in a country of 80 million people is quite small, not more than 100,000. He points out that the latest errors of the Muslim Brotherhood have been (1) to join the protests too late and (2) throw themselves behind ElBaradei, in an attempt to convince the West that they have changed, that they've become a liberal, peaceful lot. ElBaradei is viewed by most Egyptians as someone who's lived abroad for too long and doesn't know Egypt. Reportedly when he went to speak in Tahrir Square, he was largely ignored by the crowd.

So where is Egypt headed? Hopefully, it's making a few steps towards democracy, tugged along (or is it pulled back?) by Mubarak...

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