Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hosni’s very balanced system

The Obama administration’s recent shifts on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have betrayed American confusion over the way his regime is structured. That’s mystifying: Egypt is among America’s closest Arab allies and the second-largest recipient of foreign aid.

Last week, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “My belief is that an orderly transition [in Egypt] must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” Obama’s press secretary clarified the thought a day later, observing: “When we said ‘now,’ we meant ‘yesterday’ ... That's what the people of Egypt want to see.”

However, over the weekend the United States backtracked from its demand that Mubarak exit quickly. In Munich, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned against too early a departure, declaring that a two-month deadline for a presidential election “doesn’t give anybody any time” to prepare for a smooth changeover.

The flip-flopping showed how little the United States has grasped the greatest talent of Arab regimes: manufacturing stalemate. Amid the rapid developments soon after Egypt’s saga began, the administration thought it could direct a speedy change in gears. Mubarak would quietly leave office (and American officials and envoys were on hand to push him out), his recently-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, would take over for a transitional period, and Egypt would move toward stability, supervised by the pro-American military.

That may yet happen, but the Americans never asked why Mubarak resisted this convenient scenario, and why the army has seemed so reluctant to disagree with him. The fact is that even to the hardened men of the Egyptian regime, Mubarak is a patron whom they’re not used to dealing without. For three decades the president has protected their interests, has appointed most of them to their posts, knows their dirty little secrets and their enmities, and overall has structured Egypt’s military, political and economic hierarchies in such a way that different power centers can cancel each other out.

For Washington to assume that Suleiman has the legitimacy to abruptly replace Mubarak is to assume –optimistically, even hubristically – that the chief of the General Intelligence Directorate has the unanimous backing of senior military commanders and other officials. Suleiman may yet earn that legitimacy, but he will have to work very hard to do so in a system in which fellow officers will make him pay a steep price for their approval. They will expect him to defend both their personal welfare and that of the armed forces. Moreover, Suleiman was only promoted under duress, consequently his latitude to make concessions to the opposition is limited.

Herein lays a dilemma: If Mubarak stays on in office, even with restricted powers (if this is in any way realistic), Suleiman’s margin of maneuver in a transitional period will be narrow; but if Mubarak leaves office, Suleiman will struggle even more to fill the ensuing vacuum. Mubarak sits atop an equilibrium that he has imposed and presided over for many years. He is the glue tying together the different limbs of the regime writ large – the armed forces, the security services, the National Democratic Party, the military-dominated economic sectors, the pro-Mubarak business elite, and so on.

This is hardly to suggest that the Egyptian leader must stay in power. Rather, it is to point out the complexities of getting him out of power, which the Obama administration should have been more sensitive to before sonorously setting a virtual deadline for Mubarak’s removal.

In assuming that Egypt’s institutions could be bent out of shape in line with their own priorities, the Americans failed to see that Egypt doesn’t quite function in that way. Its institutions may often be dysfunctional, but that doesn’t mean that Egyptians will readily endorse their debasement. Which is why Mubarak’s foolhardy project to bring his son, Gamal, to power sat so poorly with his countrymen.

Barack Obama will need to show more patience than he has shown to resolve his Egyptian headache. He failed to hoodwink Mubarak, but the answer lies not in hoodwinking the protestors. Washington cannot afford a void in Egypt, but nor should it presume that its own salvation lies in sponsoring a new authoritarian leadership.

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