Sunday, February 06, 2011

Egypt: The Egyptian Stand-Off

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During a CNN debate on February 5,2011, an Egyptian affairs expert described the present situation in Egypt as a stand-off. It is.

2. President Hosni Mubarak has remained defiant and has refused to quit now. He has told his people that he would quit only in September when his current term ends and a new President would have been elected. He has also totally revamped his National Democratic Party (NDP) executive.Hossam Badrawi, a reformer and top physician, who enjoys the confidence of Mubarak, has been appointed the head of the policies committee, a post held by his son Gamal Mubarak till now, and also the party secretary-general. This revamping, coming on the heels of the earlier reshuffle of the Cabinet, is meant to re-assure the protesters that people associated with the hated policies of his Government and accused of corruption would not stay in office in the run-up to the elections.

3. Mubarak seems to be hoping that the aggravating economic hardships of the poor and middle class people, including the workers, would make them leave the streets and go back to earning their livelihood and that as a result the protesting crowds will be reduced to the elite, including the students, whom he is confident of handling. His defiance is also encouraged by the ambivalence of the army. The Army is not prepared to let itself be used against the protesters to disperse them forcefully. At the same time, it recognises the past services of Mubarak to the country and his role in strengthening the Armed Forces. It is, therefore, not willing to see him humiliated. There is agreement in the party as well as the Army that the time for Mubarak to quit public life has come and that he should go------honourably and not in humiliation.

4.Attempts are being made to reassure the protesters that Mubarak and his supporters would not take advantage of any de-mobilisation of the protesters to go back on his word and stay on in power after September. The dilemma before the protesters is: The increasing hardships make it difficult to maintain for long the present state of high mobilisation. At the same time, any premature demobilisation before there are definitive and irreversible changes in the political status quo could defeat the purpose of the revolution.

5. The reported US attempts to broker a transitional set-up is meant to reassure the protesters that changes in the status quo have already been initiated under international support and pressure and at the same time make it clear to Mubarak and his supporters that the dismantling of the status quo has to start now and not in September.

6. The problem is while the status quo can be easily changed in the ruling party and the unpopular leaders removed from positions of influence, it is difficult to change it in the Governmental set-up under the present Constitution, which clearly provides that if the President quits, the Speaker of the Parliament would be sworn in as the officiating President till fresh elections are held. Neither Lt.Gen.Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who was recently nominated as the Vice-President by Mubarak, nor El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, whom the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the secular opposition parties are prpared to support as the interim head till the elections are held, can officiate as the President because neither of them is an elected member of the Parliament and because of the specific provision in the Constitution that the Speaker would officiate.

7. However, there is a provision in the Constitution under which Mubarak, while continuing to be the de jure President, can delegate the powers of the President to his Vice-President who will thus become the de facto President and could co-ordinate the arrangements for the elections without Mubarak playing any role in it. It is doubtful whether the protesters would agree to such an arrangement because of the close association of Suleiman with Mubarak for nearly two decades and his equally close association with the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It was he who allegedly fed the report to the CIA about Saddam Hussein's alleged links with Osama bin Laden, which former President George Bush used as one of the excuses to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The report turned out to be false. He has also been closely associated with the suppression of the MB.

8.Thus, the position is: Suleiman is acceptable to Mubarak and his followers and the US as interim head of a transitional Government, but he may not be acceptable to the protesters. El Baradei may be acceptable to the protesters, but he cannot head the tranitional set-up under the present Constitution.

9. The stand-off continues. For how long?

10.In the meanwhile, the Americans seem to feel that the protests reached their high point on February 4 when there was an impressive mobilisation of people and that they may not be able to mobilise any more, any longer.This should explain the changing narrative regarding Mubarak on Februrary 5. In an interview to the CNN , Christiane Amanpour, the US TV journalist, mentioned about the constitutional difficulties in the way of Mubarak quitting before September. Separately, in a video message to the annual Munich Security Conference now being held, Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Egypt,who recently visited Cairo as a special emissary of President Barack Obama and met Mubarak and Suleiman, said: "We need to get a national consensus around the pre-conditions for the next step forward. The President must stay in office to steer those changes.I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical - it's his chance to write his own legacy. He has given 60 years of his life to the service of his country.This is an ideal moment for him to show the way forward."

11.In Washington, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said: "We have great respect for Frank Wisner and we were deeply appreciative of his willingness to travel to Egypt last week.He has not continued in any official capacity following the trip. The views he expressed today are his own. He did not co-ordinate his comments with the US government." Nobody would take seriously the State Department's dissociating itself from the remarks of Wisner.

12. We ourselves want Mubarak to go now, but there could be constitutional difficulties.Let him continue till September. We guarantee that he won't thereafter--- that seems to be the new message to the protesters from Washington DC via Christiance Amanpour and Wisner.

13. Is the apparent US assessment that the protests cannot go higher and should be manageable hereafter correct or wishful-thinking? (6-2-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.