Friday, February 04, 2011

Egypt: Hosni Mubarak's Time to ‘Cut and Cut Cleanly'

By Ernest Corea
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) – Twenty-six years ago, another U.S. president sent another special envoy to warn another dictator, considered a strong U.S. ally, that his days were numbered.

President Ronald Reagan chose his friend and confidante Senator Paul Laxalt for that prickly conversation with President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Marcos responded with an undertaking to hold free and fair elections -- two years down the road.

The people of the Philippines did not give him a two-year grace period. In a matter of months, peoples' power was manifested on the streets. When demonstrations, peaceful but decisive, were inching closer to Malacanang Palace, the beleaguered Marcos turned to Laxalt for advice, via an urgent phone call. Laxalt reportedly told him: "Cut and cut cleanly. The time has come." For President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, too, "the time has come".


"The world has witnessed an unprecedented popular action in the streets of Egypt," says Ismail Serageldin, a former Vice President of the World Bank. An Egyptian, Serageldin, who lives in Alexandria, is the Librarian of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Centre of Excellence rebuilt almost exactly on its original, historic site.

Serageldin explains that the massive numbers joining the pro-democracy demonstrations were "led by Egypt's youth, with their justified demands for more freedom, more democracy, lower prices for necessities and more employment opportunities. These youths demanded immediate and far-reaching changes. This was met by violent conflicts with the police, who were routed.

"The army was called in and was welcomed by the demonstrators, but initially their presence was more symbolic than active. Events deteriorated as lawless bands of thugs, and maybe agents provocateurs, appeared and looting began. The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum (of Antiquities in Cairo) and the Library of Alexandria."

The efforts by demonstrators, particularly the young, collaborating with the military to protect cultural artifacts from vandals and looters -- many of them allegedly identified as police agents -- has been truly extraordinary.


The Obama Administration's initial reaction to the Egyptian revolt was to hold out while considering the "what ifs" of regional imperatives and national interests before rushing to judgment. In-house expertise as well as the views of a wide range of scholars and policymakers were canvassed, reviewed, and distilled.

To be sure, Obama told his Cairo audience on June 4, 2009: "governments that protect (human) rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people."

Yet, he had to consider the implications for trade and commerce, regional politics and, indeed, domestic politics, before committing the U.S. to a specific response. Thus, his State of the Union speech, which pledged support to Tunisia's revolution, made no mention of its successor event in Egypt.

Before long, however, it became clear that if true stability was to be established in Egypt, it could not be done under the Mubarak regime.


The fact that "the time has come" is not a message that can be conveyed easily to a military ruler who has held unrestricted power for 30 consecutive years. President Barack Obama entrusted the task to Ambassador Frank Wisner, who had a long and illustrious career as a Foreign Service officer before moving to the corporate sector.

He served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Zambia. He was, as well, Undersecretary of Defence for policy. He is said to have developed a close personal and professional relationship with Mubarak.

Wisner's diplomatic mission resulted in Mubarak announcing in a broadcast message to the nation that he would not run again for president when elections are held in September. That was something of a concession but also a clear signal to Washington that he will not go easily.

Mubarak appears to see himself now as something of a tragic hero, as his wallowing in self-pity and self-promotion showed.

He said: "Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of the long years he spent in the service of Egypt and its people. This dear nation is my country, it is the country of all Egyptians, here I have lived and fought for its sake and I defended its land, its sovereignty and interests and on this land I will die and history will judge me and others for our merits and faults."


The self-acknowledged "defender of the land" will continue to wield power until the next election and will manage the election process, as before. The "status quo" will remain intact. Thus, for instance:

-- The "state of emergency" that was declared when President Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated and has remained in force from then until now, will not be withdrawn,

-- Constraints on politics will continue and, as demonstrated at the height of the anti-government street protests, communications facilities and social networks could be shut off and re-opened at the government's whim.

-- Election laws and practices will remain unchanged, and there is nothing to prevent Mubarak II from being installed in office through a rigged election.

Nobel laureate Mohammed El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has been providing pro-democracy demonstrators with some element of leadership, called Mubarak's public announcement "an act of deception," and a "ploy".

Obama who spoke privately to Mubarak for 30 minutes felt the need to go public with his insistence that changes should not be delayed. In a brief televised statement he said: "Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear -- and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak -- is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."


Soon, it became clear that Mubarak and his colleagues had a different kind of transition in mind. From its inception, protestors were peaceful, unless they were compelled to act in self-defence against unprovoked attacks.

On the morning of Wednesday, February 2, by contrast, the goons came out. Busloads of violent elements were transported into the area surrounding Tahrir Square. They were joined by another set, on horse back or camels, brandishing whips. They attacked the pro-democracy protestors, all the while proclaiming that Mubarak would not leave.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported that "the thugs were armed with machetes, straight razors, clubs and stones. And they all had the same chants, the same slogans and the same hostility to journalists. They clearly had been organized and briefed…."

Several local and foreign journalists were selected for attacks, and attempts were made to intimidate them, destroy their equipment, or chase them away. Some were picked up and taken away to -- goodness knows where. Among the American journalists targeted were Christiana Amanpour (ABC) and Anderson Cooper (CNN).

The military did not participate in these attacks. Neither did they prevent them. Shortly before the goons were deployed, however, a military spokesman appearing on state television addressed these questions to followers of the pro-democracy movement: "Can we walk safely down the street? Can we go back to work regularly? Can we go out into the streets with our children to schools and universities? Can we open our stores, factories and clubs?"

"You are the ones able to restore normal life," he added. "Your message was received and we know your demands. We are with you". He urged them to return to their homes.


What happened subsequently, eye-witness reports said, was that "troops guarding the square had been keeping the two sides apart earlier in the day, but when the clashes erupted they did not intervene. Most took shelter behind or inside their armoured vehicles and tanks."

Did the military know beforehand that hoodlums would be deployed and were they, therefore, urging protestors to go home so as to avoid clashes? Or was their indiference to the violence an indication that the perceived gap between the military and the Mubarak-establishment is closing -- or has closed?

Are plans being made for a crackdown on pro-democracy protestors, and the creation of chaos which can be used as a pretext to justify continued "iron fist" rule? If that is the strategy now envisaged it becomes even more urgent than before for the international community to exert sufficient pressure on Mubarak to have him begin his personal transition "now".


But, consider this.

For 30 years, Mubarak has demonstrated his "staying power." Much as reason suggests that his time has come, many observers of Egyptian affairs are convinced that he will, yet again, opt to remain, not to transit himself away.

The possibility is illustrated in one of those perennial political jokes for which the Egyptians are famous.

This story has a U.S. Air Force aircraft landing in Cairo, and being parked in seclusion, guarded by U.S. Marines. Speculation is heavy about its purpose. Ultimately, the "usually reliable sources" claim that after months of trying to hold on to power, Mubarak understands that he has lost popular support, the support of his political partners, and military support. He has arranged safe passage to a safe haven. Hence, the aircraft.

A group of pro-democracy elders feels that its is discourteous to have him leave unceremoniously, despite his shortcomings. They decide to call on him and wish him "bon voyage."

When they get to his office, they are asked to wait outside while an aide speaks to Mubarak. The aide goes into the president's inner sanctum and says: "Your Excellency, there is a delegation of pro-democracy elders at the door. They wish to bid you goodbye." "Really?" asks Mubarak. "Where are they going?" (IDN-InDepthNews/03.02.2011)

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

This article appears in the writer's regular column 'Consider This' in February 2011 issue of Global Perspectives (, a monthly magazine for international cooperation, produced by Global Cooperation Council -- a non-governmental organisation campaigning for genuine cooperation and fair globalization -- in partnership with IDN-InDepthNews.