It is said that dictators look good until their last minutes. But Mubarak is an exception. He has not looked good for a while, not even to his mentors, the Americans. Mubarak only looked good to the Israelis but that’s because they love any Arab who does not shoot at them. That’s all history now. Or is it?
Fed and fattened on American military assistance, the Egyptian army will be loath to lose the two billion dollars annually that it receives from Washington. All it has to do to pocket this amount is to carry on doing what it has now been doing for three decades: not to take on the Israelis, a fight which the Egyptians would lose in any case; to police the Gaza borders and help the Israelis maintain their vice-like grip on Gaza till the Palestinian pips begin to squeak. And this too Egypt has been doing with such telling effect that if leaked documents are to be believed the PLO President Mahmud Abbas was willing to give up Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, virtually all the land that the Israelis have grabbed in the West Bank through ‘settlements’ and abandon the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians in exile. And all in return for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state that is barely visible on a map. Will, the Eqyptian army in the changed situation continue to oblige? We will find out soon enough.
Elections are now inevitable in Egypt and if fair, the opposition parties such as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, Al-Ghad, Kifaya and the New Wafd Party should easily win. If they do, the peace treaty with Israel, which Sadat signed and paid for with his life, will not be worth the paper it is written on. With the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen and others at the helm of affairs in Cairo, and the extremist right-wing Arab-phobic coalition led by Netanyahu in power in Telaviv, it is only a matter of moments before relations between the new Egypt and Israel begin to fray. The Middle East could then return to being the cauldron that it was before Sadat opted out of the fight in 1979.
If this happens, America’s entire Middle Eastern neo-colonialist policy would have to be rethought. Of course the danger so posed may refocus US and Israeli attention on the need to offer a fair, rather than the present shabby peace deal, to the Palestinians but that’s very unlikely. Israel knows how to wage war but hasn’t a clue what to do when it wins.
To stave off the nightmarish prospect of losing Egypt’s support in the Arab-Israeli stand off the US will act. And the most obvious first step will be to retain the support of the Egyptian army. However, the army will be under strong pressure to take a clear stand against Israel although it need not appear to be as confrontational as the army under Nasser’s regime. It can make life difficult for Israel as well as the US by simply opposing Israel on key issues and by providing a degree of support to the Palestinians. Hence American largesse and diplomacy will be put to a stern test.
Assuming that the cash-starved army is amenable to US blandishments of course fortified with a dollop of dollars, deft political maneuvering will be required to sell the new Mubarak appointees to the public, especially Vice President Omar Suleiman. Mubarak’s spy master and his main channel of communication with the Americans, Suleiman is deservedly infamous for personally supervising the torture of the regime’s opponents. As for the others, Prime Minister Shafiq, and the octogenarian Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawi, a close friend of Mubarak’s, are also discredited regime stalwarts. On the other hand Lieutenant General Sani, the Chief of Staff, who is in operational command of the army, is more respected.
In order to consolidate power within the army, ferret out pro-democracy officers, and deploy their own men in key posts prior to the elections, Mubarak’s new team will want to string out the transition process. Talks with the opposition presently under way will continue fitfully so that much of the energy of protestors is drained. In due course, a series of reforms and amendments to the constitution ostensibly to usher in a far more democratic polity but in reality to dampen support for the opposition will emerge. Goodies traditionally associated with winning public support such as pay raises and the revival of trade union rights to strike will probably also be announced. A date will be fixed for elections which, like Mubarak, they will attempt to ‘manage’ to deny opposition elements a majority in Parliament. It’s all been done before, ad nauseam.
Nevertheless, their chances of success are bright. The fragile unity that exists within Egyptian society will be easily sundered if the army were to throw in its support on one side and once divided, the splintered opposition could easily be handled using a combination of force and incentives. In due course, another strongman will emerge albeit his antics aimed at retaining power will be less ham-handed and crude than those employed by Mubarak. The clever manner in which the army has behaved thus far shows that it is alive to the trickery that will be needed if it is to retain its grip on power and popularity.
The question is: will the army succeed? Again, the answer, sadly, is that it probably will. The Egyptian public like that of many other countries of the Arab world and beyond, tends not to distinguish between democracy and totalitarianism until it is too late. Besides, history is not on their side. “All modern revolutions,” said Camus, “have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State” which, as it happens in Egypt, invariably rests with one or a small coterie of men.
A true revolution would only occur if the Egyptian army were to pry itself out of the American-Zionist embrace, refuse to be a pawn of the West, and accept the obvious fact that it can never match the Israelis unless it redresses the balance of military power by acquiring nuclear weapons. As someone once said, the most useless and expensive thing in the world is the second best army in a war, which is what the Egyptian army is when compared to that of Israel.
The Egyptian uprising can only acquire international significance if its impact were to reverberate across the world much like the Russian Revolution did. Merely getting rid of a few people at the top hardly qualifies as an event of any great consequence except, of course, for the tin pot dictatorships of the Middle East or the American petrol pumps that go by the name of Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, if the Egyptian army were to seize the opportunity that the brave men and women of Egypt at Tahrir Square have created to refashion the power alignment in the region, the uprising would rightly be ranked as a seminal event in contemporary history.
The writer is a former ambassador.