Sunday, February 6, 2011

Slow is the Enemy

[This is not something that I wrote in Egypt. It is something I wrote right now, from Istanbul, watching the news coverage with increasing frustration and panic]

If what I'm seeing in the news continues on its current course, the Egyptian revolution is about to fail. I don't have words for how obscene it would be, after Egyptians finally rose up and demanded something better, after several hundred of them died trying, for a military-backed thug like Mubarak to be replaced by... another military-backed thug. But that seems to be what is happening, and for those of you from the US or Europe's great powers, your governments aren't just standing idly by and letting it happen. They're actively contributing.

What I think is happening is this: the 'orderly transition' that Hillary Clinton has been talking of seems to consist of having Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former spymaster and current Vice President, manage Mubarak's exit from politics (probably waiting until the promised date in September, or maybe even making up a reason for it to happen later, or not at all until the old man finally dies). Supposedly, there's going to be negotiation with the opposition, and a broad-based coalition for a raft of legal, political and economic reforms, over the course of months, to usher in a new Egyptian regime.

It sounds good, but I don't think that that's what's actually happening. What seems far more likely is that we are going to wind up with the same military regime we always had, maybe with a new face at its head, and they'll quietly never get around to making those reforms. The negotiations will never go anywhere - they'll bog down, and America will let them bog down, for fears about stability - and we'll be basically at the status quo, except that a lot of opposition activists are going to be silenced, horribly, as soon as the world stops paying attention. The first alarm bell for me came when the diplomats, most of all Clinton, started speaking in that weird denatured, content-less language about the transition being carried out in an "orderly, deliberate way", and so on. It's all talk about process, but there's no specifics whatsoever. It sounds exactly like what the US government has been saying about Egypt for as long as I have been alive. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government is telling citizens to go back to their normal lives, banks are opening back up, police are supposedly being released back onto the street, all co-ordinated to restore as much of a feeling of normalcy as possible.

But what, aside from a state of crisis, would actually pressure the government to negotiate in good faith with the opposition and actually begin reforming the political system? I have access to zero evidence, currently, that the military is interested in giving up any control whatsoever, or that the US is anything other than in favor of keeping the current system intact, though they hope that they can use this crisis to pressure it to open up somewhat more. As of this writing, representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood are apparently going to meet with Omar Suleiman sometime today, so perhaps we'll know more soon about how serious these negotiations are.

Personally, I think the strategy is this: Move slowly. Move as slowly as possible, to diminish momentum, and so that the international media gets bored, moves on to something else, and relieves most of the pressure. Then, negotiate, slowly, with the elements of the opposition that the government chooses, and use a mix of repression and tolerance to break the protest movement. Keep it confined to Tahrir square, restore normalcy elsewhere, and don't do anything so flagrantly violent - like opening fire indiscriminately - to attract global attention and sympathy. Instead, quietly harass protesters with hard-to-confirm small-scale thuggery, arrest them here and there, and let the people in Tahrir get frustrated by the lack of progress until they dwindle down to a smaller core of activists. try to divide the opposition by dealing with some elements (the ones who will get forever bogged down in bad-faith negotiations) while labeling the remainder dangerous Islamist radicals. Thus isolated, they can then be repressed brutally.

It doesn't have to be this bleak. As Larry Diamond pointed out, lots of transitions to democracy have happened despite the men at the top being autocrats and con-men who acted in bad faith. Representatives of the opposition can still fight for an inclusive coalition to negotiate for a re-engineering of the system, but they can't do so from a position of powerlessness. They need something to convince the old order, or at least a faction of it, that something bad will happen if the rules are not actually re-written. I frankly don't believe that that something will be American pressure. The Americans seem terrified of the current regime falling apart, and it can be safely assumed that they'll keep bolstering it and hoping it can reform in an orderly (read: stable, with no danger of Islamists coming anywhere near the levers of power) way.

As long as there were protests all over the country, that something was the fact that the country was in a state of shut-down. Given that the military has not fragmented, and that the people at the top seem to have shown no signs of splintering (it is often internal fissures in the face of pressure that cause a regime to fall apart and force them to make broad concessions, or collapse entirely), street protests seem to be the sole source of leverage the opposition has. To the extent they diminish, I think it's more likely that my most pessimistic predictions will come true. To the extent that the protests continue, and to the extent that they keep life from returning to normal, the opposition has more leverage to get real concessions, doubly so if, as often happens, the government tries too brutally to contain them, or doesn't contain them well enough, and regime elements may panic and splinter. This is why I look at reports from Tahrir square, and hope against hope that they keep protesting and keep pushing. Do not let things slow down, and do not let the world's attention wander. They are the opposition's best leverage, and a lot is riding on them.

I have a more specific thing to say about how this might be done, but I think that's for another post.

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