Egypt’s leader has gambled that he can ride out the protests and hold on. It’s a pretty good gamble.
Imagine yourself as Hosni Mubarak, master of Egypt for nearly 30 years. You’re old, unwell, detested and addicted to power. You could have orchestrated a graceful exit by promising to preside over free and fair presidential elections later this year—elections in which the Mubarak name would not be on the ballot. Instead, you gambled that you could ride out the protests and hold on.
It’s a pretty good gamble.
Like everyone else, you’ve been “listening” to Egyptians marching through the streets and telling you it’s time to go. That’s an opinion they’ll likely revise after a few more neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria are ransacked, looted and torched by gangs of hooligans.
But you haven’t just been listening to the demonstrators. You’ve also been watching them—the way they dress, the way they shave. On Sunday, in Tahrir Square, you could tell right away that most were from the Muslim Brotherhood, though they were taking care not to chant the usual Islamic slogans. And Western liberals want you to relinquish power to them?
Then there are the usual “democracy activists,” minuscule in number, better known to Western journalists than to average Egyptians, most of them subsisting on some kind of grant from a Western NGO. They think they’re lucky to have Mohamed ElBaradei as their champion, with his Nobel Peace Prize and his lifetime in New York, Vienna—everywhere, that is, except Egypt itself. They think he gives them respectability. They’re wrong.
Finally, there are the middle-class demonstrators, the secular professionals and minor businessmen. In theory they’re your biggest threat. In practice they’re your ace in the hole.
What unites the protesters is anger. But anger is an emotion, not a strategy, much less a political agenda. What, really, does “Down With Mubarak” offer the average Egyptian?
If the Brotherhood has its way, Egypt will become a Sunni theocracy modeled on Iran. If the democracy activists have theirs, it’ll be a weak parliamentary system, incapable of exercising authority over the army and a cat’s paw for a Brotherhood that knows its revolutionary history well enough to remember the name of Alexander Kerensky.
Luckily for you, this analysis is becoming plainer by the day to many Egyptians, especially since Mr. ElBaradei, imagining he has the upper hand, stumbled into a political alliance with the Brotherhood. Also increasingly plain is that it’s in your hands to blur the “fine line between freedom and chaos,” as you aptly put it last week, and to give Egyptians a long, hard look at the latter. No, it wasn’t by your cunning design that thousands of violent prisoners made a jailbreak last week. And the decision to take police off the streets was done in the interests of avoiding bloody scenes with protesters.
Yet all the same, the anarchy unleashed on Egyptian streets has played straight into your hands. The demonstrators want a freedom that looks like London or Washington. Your task is to remind them that it’s more likely to look like Baghdad, circa 2006.
No wonder the mood among Cairo’s shopkeepers, many of whom supported the initial demonstrations, is turning sharply in your favor. Those shopkeepers will soon be joined by housewives who want to feel safe in the streets; and tourism workers who want Egypt to remain a safe destination, and everyone else with a stake in a stable environment. You may be 81, but time is still on your side. And patience is rarely a virtue of the young, who now crowd the streets.
So you’re right to order the army not to fire: The last thing you need is to furnish the protesters with a galvanizing event, or the officers with an embittering one. But the analysts who suppose this decision is a sign of weakness fail to appreciate how neatly it serves your purposes. Nearly all Egyptians are agreed that the army is the one “good” institution in the country—competent, mighty and incorruptible.
But just who do they think the army is? You are its commander in chief and the keeper of its interests. Through you, the army controls an estimated 40% of the economy. Through you, retired officers are guaranteed lucrative careers running state-owned companies or getting senior political appointments. Will your officers hazard their perquisites for a hazy notion of popular freedom? Unlikely.
Today will be the moment of truth. Millions are expected to come out into the streets. But what will they do, other than chant slogans? And who will they fight, if the army won’t fight them? And what other buildings will they put to the torch, without further alienating everyone who isn’t in the march?
You’ve thought these questions through, hence your offer to negotiate with the demonstrators—preferably interminably. In the meantime, passions will cool, cosmetic adjustments will be made and you’ll plot your course to this summer’s elections.
It may be that you won’t run; you’d die in office anyway. But you’re determined to leave in the time and manner of your choosing. Judging by the way you’ve played your cards so far, you will.
Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal