'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 9) 

UPDATE 3: From a New York Times article today:

Just days after President Obama demanded publicly that change in Egypt must begin right away, many in the streets accused the Obama administration of sacrificing concrete steps toward genuine change in favor of a familiar stability.

America doesn’t understand, said Ibrahim Mustafa, 42, who was waiting to enter Tahrir Square. The people know it is supporting an illegitimate regime.

Hat tip to the Angry Arab.

UPDATE 2: Wael Ghuneim will be released as well. This is good news, as he has been incarcerated since January 28th. An Egyptian telecommunications tycoon, Naguib Sawiris, intervened and spoke to Omar Suleiman personally about it.

UPDATE 1: Al Jazeera reporter Ayman Mohyeldin has been released.

INITIAL POST: This is an extremely troubling development: US warships and troops are being readied to assist to the Multinational Force and Observers commander to support its mission of supervising the security provisions of the Egypt/ Israel Peace Treaty, and make sure it is prepared in case evacuation of U.S. citizens from Egypt becomes necessary. Given that the only people attacking Americans are the pro-Mubarak police and security forces, the security apparatus that the US has been aligned with for decades, why is this happening?

Of course, we can speculate on many reasons, but I can't think of any that are favorable to the movement in Egypt. I am especially alarmed at the possibility that the troops are being sent to give the regime a free hand in the suppression of the protests, as occurred in 1980 when the US military assumed the responsibility of protecting South Korea's border with North Korea, so that South Korea could send troops south to suppress a rebellion against the dictatorship n the city of Kwangju. The justification for this action is striking, as it mirrors the current US approach to Egypt since the protests began:

The participants in the May 22 meeting, according to the declassified minutes I later obtained from the National Security Council, included the Deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher; Holbrooke, assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific; Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser; CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner; Donald Gregg, the NSC’s top intelligence official for Asia and a former CIA Station Chief in Seoul; and U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown.

This crack foreign policy team quickly came to a consensus. The first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later, the minutes stated. Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve.

The U.S. position was summed up by Brzezinski: in the short term support, in the longer term pressure for political evolution. As for the situation in Kwangju, the group decided that we have counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order. If there was little loss of life in the recapture of the city, we can move quietly to apply pressure for more political evolution, the officials decided. Once the situation was cleared up, the war cabinet agreed, normal economic ties could move forward – including an important $600 million Export-Import Bank loan to South Korea to buy American nuclear power equipment and engineering services.

Unlike South Korea in 1980, the protests in Egypt have spread far beyond one city which can be isolated, hence, the strategy, which is an enduring feature of US foreign policy, had to be implemented differently. For the first stage of the effort, Tuesday and Wednesday were critical days. After Mubarak and Obama made complimentary televised public statements on Tuesday, the police and security forces hit the streets within minutes after Obama left the lecturn. Al Jazeera reported attacks upon protesters in Alexandria and Port Said about 30 minutes later, and these attacks spread to Cairo over the course of the night. While Mubarak hoped that such violence would allow him to retain power, it is possible that the Obama administration let them go forward for the more limited purpose of disciplining the protesters sufficiently to accept the perservation of the regime without him. The US surely knew of the attacks in advance, given extensive contacts between the US and the Egyptian military and security services. Furthermore, the military's unwillingness to suppress the attacks is also quite telling in light of this relationship. After the fact, the US has stubbornly refused to condemn Mubarak and Suleiman for the violence, relying upon a public perception of chaos in Egypt to absolve them of any responsibility.

Clearly, there is a split in the Obama administration over retaining Mubarak in power, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing support for our Pinochet in waiting, Omar Suleiman, while Obama's envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, asserted that Mubarak should be allowed to write his own legacy after giving 60 years of his life to the service of his country. For anyone naive enough to believe that the Obama administration values the interests of the Egyptian people, Wisner's remarks dispel any remaining doubt. But it is important to understand that this split is one of tactical implementation, not strategy, and that Mubarak will be cast aside at the opportune time, if necessary:

Robert Springborg, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School, said the army was manipulating the situation by dragging out a resolution of the crisis.

He said the army's aim was to focus the anger of the uprising against Mubarak rather than the military.

It's political jujitsu on the part of the military to get the crowd worked up and focused on Mubarak and then he will be offered as a sacrifice in some way. And in the meantime the military is seen as the saviours of the nation.

The military will engineer a succession. The west – the US and EU – are working to that end.

We are working closely with the military … to ensure a continuation of a dominant role of the military in the society, the polity and the economy.

Springborg's comments raise a subject that has been underreported, the role of the US military in determining US policy in Egypt. Some of you may recall that it publicly opposed the removal of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998. Here, the US military may be playing a central role because of its relationship with the Egyptian army, using it to broker a resolution favorable to the US as described by Springborg. Accordingly, it is now an appropriate time for negotiations after the attacks earlier in the week. Already, Suleiman is seeking to obtain a maximum propaganda advantage from them, announcing concessions designed to preserve the regime's grip on power, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Perhaps, the credibility of these concessions can be measured by the detention of an Al Jazeera reporter, Ayman Mohyeldin, a few hours ago. Beyond this, it appears that the language in the statement to the effect that the participants expressed their absolute rejection of any and all forms of foreign intervention in internal Egyptian affairs is already being put to nefarious purposes. A Google employee in Cairo, Wael Ghuneim, was arrested by the security forces in Cairo during protests on January 28th. He is now facing possible torture in relation to charges of undermining the government through an online smear campaign for the benefit of foreign agencies. Both of these situations are reminiscent of the methods used by the coup regime in Honduras to retain power in 2009, with the tacit of approval of the US. The police and the security forces create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in order to slow the flow of information that benefits the opposition. I am fearful that we will soon see purportedly uncontrollable and unaccountable death squad activity directed towards figures associated with more radical groups, as has happened in Honduras as well. Elections will thereafter be held under conditions most favorable to the US and the regime, with the participation of the most assertive pro-democracy and leftist groups hindered by this harassment and violence.

Such covert activity, covert in the sense that is not publicly acknowledged, fits rather well with another part of the statement: The state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society. This is the language of dictatorship, which is always rationalized because of perpetual threats to the security of society, and Mubarak and Suleiman are well positioned to generate an endless number of such threats in the manner already discussed. In other words, they can manipulate the state of emergency to their advantage through their own actions. Furthermore, such language may also refer to the characterization of possible anti-Zionist, anti-US sentiment as such a threat. So, it appears that Mubarak and Suleiman support a process of political transformation and accountability, as set forth in the statement, where the state of emergency or the threat of one, if it is lifted, can be used to control the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. No doubt, protests and actions directed towards lifting the blockade of Gaza will be suppressed.

To his credit, Mohammed El Baradei understands. Based upon what his observer told him about the negotiations, he said this on Meet the Press today:

The process is opaque. Nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage. It's managed by Vice President Suleiman. It is all managed by the military and that is part of the problem.

I have not been invited to take part in the negotiations or dialogue but I've been following what is going on.

If you really want to build confidence, you need to engage the rest of the Egyptian people - the civilians.

Issandr El-Amrani, a sober minded journalist who posts at The Arabist, gets it, too:

With Hillary Clinton's backing for Suleiman as the lead on a transition in Egypt, we are quickly heading towards the formation of another strongman regime that cannot be trusted to deliver on the changes needed in the political environment. There needs to be a mechanism to integrate the opposition into the heart of the state to grant full legitimacy to its demand, and reduce the perception (and reality) of Omar Suleiman being the sole man at the helm.

Of course, his implicit willingness to accept Suleiman as a successor to Mubarak is troubling, but I have quoted it to illustrate his recognition that the US and the regime are working together to bring about the preservation of the dictatorship in new clothes.

Meanwhile, the US is sending troops and warships to secure the Sinai and the border with with Gaza, so as to continue the economic strangulation of the Palestinians, among other things, if this process fails to quell the protests. As'ad Abukhalil observes that, in nearby Tunisia, the protesters are taking appropriate measures in response to US efforts to preserve the power of the dictatorial regime there:

Why we are watching Egypt, take note of what is happening in Tunisia. The plan set in place there by Jeffrey Feltman during his visit there to save the regime is breaking down. Tunisian rebels keep pushing and keep insisting on dismantling the apparatus of power of the previous regime. They keep attacking the security and police headquarters of the previous regime.

We will soon discover whether such action will be necessary in Egypt. For now, it is encouraging to hear that some protesters are attempting to mobilize government workers to go out on strike.

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