The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed.
Contrary to the dominant media narrative, over the last ten days the Egyptian state has not experienced a regime breakdown. The protests have certainly rocked the system and have put Mubarak on his heels, but at no time has the uprising seriously threatened Egypt's regime. Although many of the protesters, foreign governments, and analysts have concentrated on the personality of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, those surrounding the embattled president, who make up the wider Egyptian regime, have made sure the state's viability was never in question. This is because the country's central institution, the military, which historically has influenced policy and commands near-monopolistic economic interests, has never balked.
As the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party burned to the ground, NDP members chaotically appeared on TV with a pathetically incoherent message; meanwhile, the message from the ruling military elite was clear, united, fully supportive of Mubarak, and disciplined practically down to a man. Indeed, this discipline could be seen throughout the military ranks. Despite the fact that a general with a megaphone stated his solidarity with the protesters while other protesters painted "Down to Mubarak" on tanks across central Cairo, no acts of organizational fragmentation or dissent within the chain of command have occurred.
Since January 28, the Mubarak regime has sought to encircle the protesters. Egypt's governing elites have used different parts of the regime to serve as arsonist and firefighter. Due to the regime's role in both lighting the fire and extinguishing it, protesters were effectively forced to flee from one wing of the regime to another. This occurred on two levels: first, the regime targeted the protesters, using the police as its battering ram. During the first days of demonstrations, uniformed officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds. Beginning on February 2, plain-clothes officers posing as Mubarak supporters -- some on horseback and camels -- carried whips and sticks to intimidate and injure those protesting against the system, teaching them a repressive lesson.
Although it is impossible to say that every single member of the "pro-Mubarak" crowd was in the security forces, enough of them had their credentials taken to illustrate an indisputable police presence. Moreover, the violence has been selective and targeted, not chaotic, as Mubarak has described. The disappearance of police officers on January 29, leaving the neighborhoods to criminal elements and neighborhood watch groups, and their reappearance 24 hours later suggest that they were acting on orders, rather than haphazardly dispersing and returning.
While the army kept order in the streets, the Interior Ministry and police were functioning as the regime's repressive arm, performing the dirty work of trying to force the protesters from Tahrir back into their homes.
The military's rank and file, who are deployed on the streets, became part of a different regime strategy. There is no doubt that solidarities developed between protesters and soldiers as fellow citizens, but the army's aloof neutrality underscores that its role on the sidelines was intentional. This was prominently on display when the "pro-Mubarak" demonstrators attacked antigovernment protesters in Tahrir on February 2. That the siege of a major city square took place over the course of 16 hours, leaving 13 dead and more than 1,200 wounded, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, suggests that the military's orders were conceived to cast its officers as potential saviors from the brutal violence.
This containment strategy has worked. By politically encircling the protesters, the regime prevented the conflict from extending beyond its grasp. With the protesters caught between regime-engineered violence and regime-manufactured safety, the cabinet generals remained firmly in control of the situation.
The generals that now man the cabinet also sought to wage a war on the non-protesting population, and they did so without firing a single shot. As the state framed the demonstrators as troublemakers, non-protesting Egyptians experienced the uprising's effects. Banks have been closed since January 27, ATMs have been emptied of their cash, and the prices of food and staples have slowly risen at a time when school is cancelled, offices are closed, and curfews are in effect. Similarly, the Internet and cellular networks were shut off and have been patchy at best since their return.
Although some of these citizens may have sympathized with the protesters initially, their mood appears to be shifting. People are tired of being cooped up in their apartments, made anxious as their stockpiles of food and money decrease, and they are ready for a sense of "normalcy" to return. Ironically, the normalcy they pine for resembles the police state so many tried to banish just thirteen days ago. This method of wearing down the non-protesting public seems just as strategic as the violence employed on those airing their grievances in the streets.
The story that the news media have largely crafted is that of the good protesters pitted against the bad Mubarak dictatorship. Despite the accurate reporting of incidents and often horrifying images, the fact that the Egyptian regime has played a good-cop, bad-cop routine to contain the situation remains lost in the din of 24-hour coverage. Despite many of the protesters pointing out this dynamic, such as Hossam el-Hamalawy and Mahmoud Salem, it has failed to take hold as the prevailing thread.
Nevertheless, as the crisis has deepened, the push for Mubarak's resignation has intensified. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration will seek to have Mubarak retire early instead of waiting until the September election. The United States has repeatedly insisted on an "orderly transition."
If those guiding the transition choose to direct it toward a democratic end, then it will have to include forces that are currently banned in the country, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and individuals who have been tortured or imprisoned, such as Ayman Nour. It will have to include the youth elements from the street organizing committees as well as the irrelevant figures that head the country's existing opposition parties. Managing such a transition from dictatorship to democracy is a massive challenge even in the best of times. The leader of the transition will therefore determine whether it results in a genuine democracy or continuous authoritarian rule. If that person is General Omar Suleiman, who was sworn in as vice president on January 30, the prospects for democracy are grim.
Suleiman is cut from the same undemocratic cloth as Mubarak. They have collaborated since 1993, and Suleiman shares many of Mubarak's policy preferences and his worldview. He is known for his skill as a negotiator and his disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the vice president may now seem a stabilizing force for the Egyptian state during a transition period, U.S. officials should consider that he might seek to stay in power long beyond September.
Indeed, some of Suleiman's earliest public statements since becoming vice president do not bode well for democracy. In fact, they sound eerily familiar. On February 2, the bloodiest day in Tahrir Square to date, Suleiman said the regime now refuses to negotiate until "the Egyptian street returns to normal." Sensing that the regime had the upper hand, Suleiman declared that a new constitution is out of the question in advance of the presidential election later this year and asserted that the unrest had been the result of "a conspiracy" directed by "foreign countries, the Muslim Brothers, and some parties." Lastly, echoing the paternalistic tone that Mubarak has employed for nearly 30 years, Suleiman recommended, "We will ask [protesters] to go home. And we'll ask their parents to ask them to go home." Hence, he effectively called out potential transition partners as traitors and children before pledging to conduct another presidential election under a desperately flawed constitution.
The protesters have been given an ambiguous choice about this transition. Go home and -- perhaps -- be invited to the negotiating table later, or continue protesting and be excluded from Suleiman's negotiations. Some independent figures, such as Amr Moussa and Nabil Fahmy, have broken ranks with the protesters and met with Suleiman. Given that many of these individuals held previous appointments in Mubarak's Egypt, protesters will likely be skeptical of their intentions as agents of change.
There is no doubt that the post-Mubarak era is afoot, but it is not necessarily a democratic one. The Egyptian military leaders that are governing the country seem content to leave Mubarak in his place so Suleiman can act as the sitting president. Indeed, even leading government officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have begun to direct their concerns to Suleiman's office. Hence, as the protesters in Tahrir Square -- and the non-protesters facing empty refrigerators and wallets at home -- have begun to feel the state's squeeze, the regime has so far maintained its ability to control how the conflict is unfolding.
When the uprising began in Egypt, many linked the events in Tunis and Cairo and declared that 2011 might be the Arab world's 1989. Instead, 2011 is showing just how durable and adaptable the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world truly are. Faced with real challenges and moments of potential breakdown, Egypt's military did not hesitate or even break a sweat. In fact, the regime remained cohesive throughout by pursuing a sophisticated strategy of unleashing violence upon the people and then saving them from it.
This latest adaptation of autocracy in the Arab world is more honest than its previous incarnations. Before the uprising in Egypt began, the military ruled from behind the curtain while elites, represented by public relations firms and buoyed by snappy slogans, initiated neoliberal economic policies throughout Egypt. In this latest rendering, with Suleiman at the helm, the state's objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of "orderly transition" in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.