Sunday, February 6, 2011

EGYPT: EMBRACING THE OPPOSITION

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM



A powerful regime, facing a rare moment of vulnerability, is all of a sudden interested in reform and willing to talk. It invites its arch-enemies to the negotiating table. But once the crowds are gone, what guarantee remains that the police state will not regroup and retrench and strike back with a vengeance?

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met with members of the opposition over the weekend. What remains unclear is if the Mubarak regime is sincerely extending an open hand of peace to the opposition, or trying to draw them in close enough so they can be slapped or lured into a trap. Is the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood a heartfelt bid to hear all sides or a plan to sow division in a protest that to date has been notable for being leaderless, secular, spontaneous and youthful?

Given the low esteem with which the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed in Israel, Europe and the US, extending an olive branch to the banned, radical opposition might seem paradoxical at first. But it is sometimes easier for entrenched power to deal with its arch-enemy, the enemy that it knows, and not only knows, but probably needs, as an existential doppelganger. On a certain functional level it may be easier for a ruthless power to deal with, if not respect, another ruthless, tightly organized entity, rather than deal with a random mass of peaceful moderates without a hierarchical political organization.

Certainly in other places, at other times, this paradoxical embrace of the opposite can be seen in effect. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US found it easier to work with Japan’s old wartime elite than the communists, pacifists and trade unionists who opposed Tokyo’s war on Asia. In recent decades, Beijing’s rulers have found it easier to engage the Communist Party of China’s arch-enemy represented by the KMT party on Taiwan, rather than deal respectfully with rag-tag individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, and many thousands of others, who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Thus, what appears at first glance a gesture of inclusion on the part of the Egyptian regime might in fact be a bid to exclude the moderate core demonstrators and keep the focus on mutually antagonistic extremes instead.

Suleiman, who has emerged for the moment as Washington’s go-to guy in trying to find a resolution to Egypt’s political impasse, might be acceptable to his foreign interlocutors, but demonstrators on the scene, including Nobel laureate Mohamed El Baradei, tend not to agree. Is it really realistic to expect a regime of thirty years standing and a reputation for brutality to change its game overnight? Is it likely to keep the promises it makes under pressure?

The search to find a stand-in for the Egyptian government who is minimally acceptable to demonstrators, the regime and its foreign allies alike will continue apace.

Meanwhile, Suleiman articulated his bid for recognition by trumpeting a meeting held on his terms with selected members of the opposition. In an English language summary released on February 6, 2011 by his office, the long-standing intelligence chief put forward some promising points, even as veiled threats and dark innuendos were woven into the script.

Suleiman’s official statement offers some valuable clues as to what the regime is thinking right now. The regime has not lost its cool, it is calm and seemingly in control. It puts forward a public relations release that is part complaint, part threat, part a bid to appear reasonable, and part misdirection.

The document reads like the minutes of an "action meeting;" it is at once sophomoric and stifling, full of trumped-up promise and riddled with veiled threats; sort of like a cross between the minutes of a high school student council meeting and a withering assessment made in a US State Department cable of the sort made famous by Wikileaks.

"All participants of the dialogue arrived at a consensus..."

As is usually the case when words are offered in lieu of action, terms that sound good can mean very much or very little, and even words that please the ear can mean different things to different people. The promise to deal with the crisis "seriously, expeditiously and honestly" is hard to find fault with, but what does it mean in concrete terms, given the grim context?

To hear Suleiman bemoaning the "lack of security for the populace" is ironic when the regime itself, which Mr. Suleiman earnestly represents, is the root cause of much insecurity, guilty as it is of unbridled corruption, documented brutality and a reputation for torture.

To buttress the stability-at-any-cost argument that follows, Suleiman's text makes mention of a litany of pressing problems, such as "the disturbances to daily life, the paralysis of public services," along with school closings and logistical delays slyly suggesting that the reaction to regime injustice --the determined and courageous and largely spontaneous gathering of peaceful demonstrators-- is the problem rather than the underlying injustice itself.

Surely Egypt would be less wobbly were Mubarak to resign immediately and enjoy his forty billion dollar private fortune in exile, but that's not the kind of stability Suleiman is alluding to. It is clearly stability with the regime intact that he is after.

Not surprisingly for a public relations statement that aims to create an aura of domestic solidarity while reining in a nationalism gone awry, Suleiman pins the lion’s share of the blame on foreigners, a useful target for rogues everywhere since time immemorial.

"The attempts at foreign intervention into purely Egyptian affairs and breaches of security by foreign elements working to undermine stability in implementation of their plots," is the way he puts it, but it sounds uncannily like McCarthyism dressed up in local clothing. If Mr. Suleiman wants to reduce foreign influence in a nation that depends on tourism for ten percent of its revenue and depends on US taxpayer money to arm itself and stay afloat, he might start with refusing all aid and assistance from the US and Israel.

The text is at times haughty and uncompromising in tone. Suleiman comes across as a proud and fairly dignified figure on TV, and he has an air about him that suggests the hard-to-shake confidence of the ruling class in a country of extreme wealth and poverty. The arrogant tone shifts only briefly with a nice sop to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. It sounds like a protective mantra, a minimum condition, perhaps one proposed by those members of the opposition present. It's a formulaic line, but one worth remembering: "The 25 January movement is an honorable and patriotic movement."

The official notes on the meeting go on to say, a bit too promisingly, that a high degree of consensus was found "on a number of political arrangements."

This section that follow seems to come in response to President Obama's public statements, calling for meaningful change, now. But it also takes a defiant note, implying some things are non-negotiable, as made evident in Mubarak's mule-like resistance to stepping down, while offering some superficial changes and a promise not to run again. "No nomination for a new presidential term will take place," says the statement. What follows are vague promises of constitutional reform which may be the product of earnest internal discussion, but also serve the purpose of buying time for the regime haunted by a ticking clock.

Clause number 7, which calls for "Restoring the security and stability of the nation, and tasking the police forces to resume their role in serving and protecting the people," certainly sounds like a bid to restore the status quo.

In the past few weeks, the police were rather more part of the problem than a solution to it, alternately engaged in heavy-handed arrests and volatile provocations of the crowd, in tandem with a disappearing act that made their invisibility painfully "visible" in the context of orchestrated looting, prisoner escapes and damage to national treasures including a statue of King Tut. For those who don’t get easily upset at head-cracking, there was the unthinkable threat of damage to priceless artifacts. (This is reminiscent of the “outrage” of the Asia Society in New York during the Vietnam War which had nothing to say about the bombing and napalming of the Cambodian people but got visibly upset at the possibility that the ruins of Angkor Wat might be damaged.)

What turned out to be a minor attack on the National Museum served up an appetite for a dose of law and order, which of course did not bode well for the crowd assembling adjacent to the museum.

The most significant areas of "agreement" that the Suleiman statement puts forward --that of releasing prisoners of conscience, ending emergency law and liberalizing the media with no extra-legal constraints-- certainly sound like welcome changes, but the devil is in the details and the implementation. The document does not promise to release political prisoners, but rather announces “the establishment of a bureau to receive complaints" which in the end might address some long-term miscarriages of justice while leaving others unresolved. What progress such a bureau might achieve would most likely be slow and halting, dragging with the glacial pace common to a bureau wrapped inside of a bureaucracy.

Likewise, for Suleiman to proclaim that the state of emergency will be lifted “based on the security situation” is to say not much at all, unless it happens soon.

The text goes on to offer a salute to the patriotic and loyal role played by Egypt’s Armed Forces, which sounds a bit like a pat on the back, since Mubarak and Suleiman sit on the top of the pyramid of a military regime, but it remains intriguing inasmuch as the army has, to date, behaved better than the police. When it comes to wishful thinking, both the regime and opposition like to think the army is on their side.

The only real clause with bite is the xenophobic stab that follows: "All participants expressed their absolute rejection of any and all forms of foreign intervention in internal Egyptian affairs."

That’s reasonable reaction for a once-colonized nation on a certain level, but it is also blatantly hypocritical, and not just because the Mubarak regime depends on US aid for its survival. Presumably Suleiman is in touch with the US State Department and the White House, and may well be taking into account specific "instructions" issued to his regime that go beyond the timorous, ambiguous, and sometimes backtracked calls for change being made by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in public. Call it diplomacy, or the art of saving face for the rich and powerful.

Overall, the statement leaves one wondering if there’s any daylight between Mubarak and Suleiman at all. Suleiman is part and parcel of, and continues to serve with something akin to abject loyalty, the self-styled modern-day pharaoh Mubarak. Like a loyal consigliere, there’s a touch of humility to the subordinate man’s arrogance, and although titular vice-president, he is quick to disavow any interest in power.

Another dedicated number-two, and coincidentally an old pal of Hosni Mubarak, none other than ex-vice President Dick Cheney, has also joined the fray. He says Mubarak is a loyal friend of the US. No stranger to arrogance himself, Cheney suggests, as he did throughout his campaign to fool the American public and force a war in Iraq, that he is privileged to know things that ordinary citizens can only guess about. In any case, he rather inadvertently drives home the point that the American public is not always aware of what kind of behind-the-scene deals are being made in its name by the White House.

In the end, if the Cairo regime, in this, its moment of desperation, finds foreign influence so truly objectionable, then it would be morally and ideologically consistent to stop accepting the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers and go it alone, facing the wrath of a people long betrayed, not just by foreigners, but by their own leaders.