Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Inevitable Political Speculation Post

From January 29:

I spend an incredible amount of my time and mental bandwidth speculating, obsessively, about what's happening and what's going to happen politically. I watch al-Jazeera, English and Arabic, switching to other networks when the coverage gets repetitive. And I ponder. And ruminate. And stress. And puzzle. If there were a pie chart of how I spent my time, I think the largest slice would be taken up by "wondering what the hell the big politicos, Mubarak and Obama and so on, are thinking". The next biggest slice would be sleeping.

There are lots of living rooms like mine in Egypt, with people pacing around trying to guess at a puzzle they don't have all the pieces for. Why hasn't Mubarak stepped down? What's his strategy here? What's going on, and when will we know already, so this waiting game will stop? By all rights, the president should be on a plane by now, or in the Hague. What does it take to get rid of this guy? The man is clinging to power like a barnacle. In fact, for the rest of this entry, I'm going to call him Mubarnacle.

The best way I know how to phrase the question that's been echoing around my head is this: what would actually force Mubarnacle to step down in a situation like this?

It's not clear. I mean, people can protest and make an amazing show of presence and unity, as they have. But so what? That doesn't directly force anyone to do anything. It creates pressure, but that's not the same as force. So what would have to happen to get rid of Mubarnacle? I'm at least theoretically a political scientist, and people have written on this question. It's far from my area of expertise, but my understanding is that if the president has the backing of his coalition and the army, with no major players defecting, he can hold on for a long time.

Everyone else is speculating, so my speculation is this: I remember on Friday night, Mubarnacle was supposed to give a speech, but it kept getting delayed. In the end, he didn't speak until after the army had secured Cairo and Alexandria. Only then did he give that mustache-twirling "I'm not going anywhere" speech. So my interpretation is that he is reasonably confident that the army is behind him, and once the army had secured the streets, what he wants to do is let people protest, buy himself time to maneuver, and hope that, if people go to Tahrir square for days on end and nothing happens, the army lets them be but doesn't turn on the regime, eventually they'll lose their enthusiasm. It's not a great strategy, but it's probably the best one he has. And at at least as of when he's writing this, it's working. Nobody seems to be forcing him to step down; no coup is forthcoming. The protesters don't seem to be losing their enthusiasm - they really, really hate this guy, and everyone tells me they've gone past the point where they can back down - but I guess the hope is that with time they can be infiltrated and broken, or will have to go back to work.

So if I'm right, the protesters need to peel people away from Mubarnacle's coalition, convince some of those powerful higher-ups, the ones in backrooms having conversations I'd kill to hear, that it's no longer in their best interests to keep the current president around. I think the best way the protesters can do that is to keep the country in a state of shut-down. Keep protesting, keep the country closed for business, and hope that someone with the power to do so finally decides that Egypt will implode if some normalcy isn't restored, and scrape Mubarnacle off of Egypt's keel. The idea is to make keeping him around more costly than ditching him - keeping in mind that a lot of these people know the president personally, and may be inclined to back him for reasons of familiarity and old ties as much as cold interest.

It'll be a hard thing. It will require constant presence in the streets, a laser-focused message that doesn't waver in the face of the many smokescreens Mubarnacle will use, and, likely, real hardship, since it will require keeping the country shut down, maybe for a while. There are a lot of poor people in Egypt, and it could be harder on them in the short term than on the regime. And even after all that, if it works, there's a good chance the military, which will almost certainly have been involved in finally pushing Mubarnacle off stage, will try to put in someone who's 'one of them', as Mubarnacle was. Whether that succeeds is anyone's guess - there are a lot of ifs, and thinking it through will have to come another day.

This is a very internal-dynamics way of looking at things, which I guess is my bias. Notably absent from all this is international pressure. It's not that I think international pressure is useless. I just don't think much of it is coming in this particular case. Maybe some backroom wrangling, I don't know, but I just don't think that the Americans or Europeans are going to apply enough pressure to meaningfully alter anyone's interests or behavior. They're playing it careful, which is nice in that they'll probably be able to deal on good terms with whoever comes out on top, but I think that those people who want the US to take the lead are going to be disappointed.

So, for what it's worth, I hope people keep protesting and don't give an inch until Mubarnacle's gone and they are able to take part in constituting the new government. Because if my speculation is right, it probably is their best shot to avoid staying stuck with Mubarnacle, or, possibly more disappointingly, another military-picked establishment strongman.

[Note: there are still a few more of these, but I'm to bed for the night - ed]

[And I see that these speculations are already wrong. Mubarnacle didn't just wait them out. He sent thugs in and is trying to end this with violence. The good news is that this means he's probably desperate. But the bad news is, well, he's willing to smash his own country rather than step down. Here's hoping he goes away soon - ed]


  1. You don't know me but I reached your blog via a Facebook post of Abby's. Thanks so much for writing all this up. Your firsthand accounts are fascinating.

  2. You've written down literally 95% of the same exact thoughts, feelings, and revelations that I had while I was holed up in my downtown Tunis apartment during the Tunisian revolution. Like you, I live just a few blocks from the Interior Ministry, had stuff go down on my street just below my window (lots of great picture-taking opportunities!), and am a young foreigner in a way foreign country. Well done.