Friday, February 11, 2011

The Egypt Endgame


In an attempt to win people to its side, or at least distance them from the Nile Uprising that has made its symbolic home in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian government has promised a 15% increase in the salaries of all public sector employees. This, of course, is merely the latest gesture of change offered by the ruling regime and follows far more dramatic events, including the removal of high profile political types from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), not the least of which being Mubarak himself; discussion with certain members of the opposition; and condemnations of violent acts against the protesters themselves over the last two weeks. It is not terribly likely that these moves by the government will strike many of the Egyptian people as being even remotely sincere. Over the past thirty years of his reign, Mubarak has promised change and followed up on nothing. The pay raises, however, are a craftier policy move, one that is undoubtedly intended to show an immediate change in the regime’s course of action. All in all, this is the other side of despotic rule, the side that would feign abhorrence towards the fullness of its own brutality and offer paltry fixes to the much deeper problems that lurk just at the surface.

Will this move work? We will have to wait and see. If the country’s economy continues to fall into a tailspin, it’s quite likely that it will fail spectacularly. Any sharp uptick in inflation would render a 15% salary increase unnoticeable to the man or woman plugging away diligently in the offices of Egypt’s labyrinthine governmental agencies. If the economy stabilizes, on the other hand, the question then is whether or not the government has an accurate read on the demands of the people. Is it the economy, stupid? Or is it a far more entangled mess that Hosni has gotten himself and his coddling benefactors into. After all, in addition to the economy, what of arbitrary police brutality? Or what of the regime’s habit of crushing any semblance of political opposition? Or what of the rampant corruption that gums up the basic daily lives of millions of Egyptians? And so on and so forth.  

The problem is as complex as the bureaucratic structure built up by Mubarak to shield his rule from accountability and change. Ultimately, the government has landed in an impossible predicament and I say this without the slightest sympathy for them. In order to meet the ultimately moderate demands of the Nile Uprising, the government would need to cease to be what it has created itself to be. Over the past 30 years, it has meticulously grown a security apparatus that leaves its mark on all aspects of Egyptian life. From the presence of well-armed uniformed policemen to the constant threat of undercover agents who can kidnap and torture with impunity, security is the true source of terror for the Egyptian people. The intent, of course, is to create the sense that Egyptians are being watched, constantly and in every place. The constant threat of force and intimidation was undoubtedly meant to work its way into the psyche of the people, thereby creating a permanently docile and controllable populace. And for decades, this seemed to be a functional and effective tactic. Policy experts and politicians, pundits and business leaders spoke with tremendous confidence that the “stability” of Egypt was a given not to be questioned. The capitals of the western world echoed with loving praise of Mubarak’s efforts. He had, in their eyes, created the perfect system, one that could carry the trappings of a 21st Century developing nation, facilitate a mild trickle of capital through that corner of the African continent, and ensure an unquestioning partner in the U.S.’s Global War on Terror.  

But Mubarak and his western patrons were obviously caught with their proverbial pants down. With intense speed and sophistication we have seen that a huge portion of the Egyptian people is no longer willing to be subjected to the security interests of others at their own expense. No longer content with being pawns in someone else’s game, what we have seen over the last few weeks is people rising up to create an entirely new game for themselves. 

The question now facing western governments is whether they will hedge their bets, praying that their capsizing comprehension of the world will right itself, or whether they will support real reform in Egypt and beyond. Given current statements and actions (as well as a wealth of historical guidance) I think we can safely say that the west will put all their chips on the table and bet on the NDP. After all, they are as complicit in the construction of Egypt’s police state as Mubarak himself. And because of this, the status quo is equally in the interest of Mubarak’s regime and those who haunt the halls of power in Washington, Tel Aviv, and London. The Nile Uprising, in other words, is so important because there is so much at stake.  

And what of this conglomeration of western powers? Without doubt, Mubarak owes deep gratitude to the U.S., which has, through thick and thin, good times and bad, pumped a constant flow of cash and expertise into his government, military, and security apparatus. Without the U.S., the Mubarak regime would have faded into the annals of history years ago. Obama, though showing profound ineptitude at the outset of this crisis, has gathered his wits and is at present working diligently with his Secretary of State to develop a plan that would sufficiently defuse the momentum and demands of the uprising. Calls for change are twinned with dire warnings of the need for a smooth transition of power. Omar Suleiman, the U.S.’s rendition program Torture Czar go-to man in Egypt has assumed a central position in the decision-making process and is offering the world assurances that change will happen when the people of Egypt have proven that they are mature enough for the democratic process. He and Hillary seem to chat on a daily basis, which ought to give us a clear picture of the Obama Administration’s position on participatory governance in Egypt. Meanwhile, despite the fact that he holds far more power than he did prior to the uprising, Suleiman makes it clear that Mubarak is still present and running the show. Whether this is true or not is thoroughly beside the point simply because the policies of Mubarak will be the policies of Suleiman which will be the policies of his successor if the U.S. has any say in the matter. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Mubarak also owes immeasurable thanks to Israel’s current Likudist government, as well as governments past. Throughout the uprising, the Israelis held out unwavering support to their friend-to-the-south, cajoled any governments that dared offer tepid condemnation of the NDP’s brutal attacks on Egyptian protesters, and pressured the U.S. government to not finally cut the Egyptian regime loose once and for all. And then, of course, there are the French, Germans, and British who have done their part in ensuring that a democratic system never sees the light of day in Egypt. Such is life in the days of 21st Empire!

There is tremendous irony in this wave of support for the regime coming from the west. From January 25 forward, the NDP cynically attempted to roil the Egyptian masses during the uprising with constant claims in the state-run media that “outside forces” were the source of the conflict. Reports even trickled in to Al Jazeera that NDP members of parliament were rallying people to defend the nation against Americans who, apparently, had taken over Tahrir Square. Of course there weren’t Americans there. Instead, they found Egyptians rising up for Egyptians. This did not deter extreme acts of violence on the part of the regime and its mercenaries. For those of us who watched Al Jazeera’s grainy live video feeds, we saw thugs of all stripes rain wrath and violence on what had been a peaceful protest. Alongside those tricked into defending Egypt from invasion were official employees of Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior. Others were temporary workers, offered short-term employment with considerable compensation. As convulsions of violence ripped through the center of Egypt’s capital and throughout the country, the Obama Administration and other western leaders pathetically called for restraint on all sides. But the side that spoke the language of violence only continued. After all, they had received $1.3 billion a year since 1981 to do just that, so why stop now?  

At present, Mubarak remains in power. His underling, Omar Suleiman, is meant to be the new face of the NDP’s old terror machine. But this public relations move is clearly meant for western media consumption only. After all, his is a face quite familiar to the peopleof Egypt and one that does not bring to the mind words like hope or change. Indeed, it is a face that reflects the hypocrisy of western foreign policy when it comes to that part of the world. After all, when it comes to the Middle East, we love change, as long as everything stays the same.  

Tarecq M. Amer is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Davis and can be reached at


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