Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The dangers of Mubarak's offer

It's time someone spelled out in detail what would happen if Egyptians accepted President Mubarak's plan to step down in September and allow elections for a new president under a new constitution, and why the protest movement should be so wary of his intentions.

·        The new constitution would be drafted and approved by the existing parliament, which is completely controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party after rigged elections last year. Even if the government fulfils its promise to respect court rulings invalidating the voting in some constituencies and holding a new round of voting in those areas, the opposition has no guarantee that the police and ruling party will ensure a fair vote. Even if improved elections are held, it would probably dilute the NDP's dominance only to a marginal extent. The authorities have habitually ignored court rulings that do not suit their interests.
·        The government and ruling party have a long record of making merely cosmetic amendments to the constitution, as they have done twice in the last six years. Although billed as 'reforms', the amendments have even had the effect of restricting the right to stand for election, especially for the presidency, and diluting the provisions for electoral fairness. In fact, under the existing 'improved' constitution, only the NDP presidential candidate would have the right to stand.
·        Mubarak did not mention the crucial question of judicial supervision of elections, which proved so irksome to their rigging efforts in 2005 and which was abolished under the subsequent amendment. Likewise, he gave no guarantee on election monitoring, either by Egyptian or international organisations. Without judicial supervision or independent monitoring, the door is wide open for more electoral abuses of the traditional variety.
·         In theory, Mubarak and his vice president are offering dialogue with the opposition during preparations for elections. But past experience, not just in Egypt but elsewhere, is that dialogue without a balance of power can only end in favour of the strong. The regime would simply ignore opposition proposals that it does not like. 
 ·        Over the eight months before presidential elections are due in September, the police corps and especially the Central Security riot police would be reconstituted and would be available for use in suppressing all forms of public protest. The government has used Central Security in the past for preventing access to police stations while intimidated civil servants and NDP thugs stuff ballot boxes and perpetrate other forms of electoral fraud.
·        The NDP's presidential candidate in September is most likely to be newly appointed vice president and former army general Omar Suleiman, who has been intelligence chief and is one of Mubarak's trusted lieutenants. The most likely outcome is that Suleiman would win and remain president of Egypt for at least two full six-year terms, or until he dies, whichever comes first. This is hardly an attractive prospect for Egyptians seeking a break with the past. That would leave the country in the grip of the NDP and its corrupt ion until at least 2023. If Mubarak feels strong enough when the time comes for elections, he might even consider reactivating the plan to install his son Gamal as president, though at this stage, given the damage to his credibility, this scenario seems implausible.
·        With the exception of former Interior Minister Habib el-Adli, referred to the military prosecutor's office for investigation (in effect as a scapegoat for the regime's failure to crush the protest movement), no one is likely to face investigation for the killing of the 138 people who have died in the last week of protests mostly protesters killed by riot police. The investigation of Adli could easily be dropped once the situation comes down.

A very disturbing trend which has surfaced in the last 24 hours is the appearance of pro-Mubarak supporters in close proximity to where the protest movement has gathered. Television stations reported on Tuesday evening that some of those pro-Mubarak supporters attacked protesters on the margins of the 100,000-strong march in Alexandria. I heard a noisy group of  them in Kasr al-Aini Street just south of Tahrir Square in the early hours of Wednesday morning but I was reluctant to investigate because of rumours about their aggressive behaviour. Some of these pro-Mubarak gangs could be armed and dangerous. Some members of the protest movement would inevitably respond in kind, leading to gang warfare and even something akin to civil war.  This is a very dangerous trend, carrying the potential for large-scale bloodshed. The trend suggests some regime elements are willing to fight for their privileges and will not easily accept defeat.
    Simultaneously, the exclusion of Al Jazeera as a source of information for Egyptians gives the state media and Al Arabiya a chance to set the media agenda. Al Arabiya, to its shame, has played an ignominious role as a conduit for regime propaganda, trying to frighten the middle classes with alarmist reports of insecurity and giving the tiny pro-Mubarak demonstrations coverage way out of proportion with their tiny size. Al Arabiya is of course under the influence of the Saudi royal family, which has been one of Mubarak's strongest allies. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has dismissed the Egyptian protest movement as people "who have infiltrated the people in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred. The Egyptian authorities have closed down Al Jazeera transmissions on Nilesat, which it owns, in violation of its contractual obligations, and transmissions on Arabsat, which is based in Saudi Arabia and owned by conservative Gulf interests, have also been disrupted.
    It is uncertain how the army would respond if gangs of armed 'loyalists' took to the streets and started to attack the protest movement. It's possible that the gangs could seriously alienate army officers against the regime, but the dynamics of the debate within the upper echelons of the military command remains entirely opaque from the outside, so it would be reckless of the protest movement to place too much hope there.
    President Obama's attitude is also opaque even after the statement he made on Tuesday evening. It's not clear whether the United States is tacitly endorsing Mubarak's offer and wants to see Omar Suleiman as the next president of Egypt, as an obstacle to the Muslim Brotherhood and in order to ensure that Egypt continues to play its servile role protecting Israel's southwestern flank. If that is the case, it will be an unforgivable betrayal of the Egyptian people.
    Some Egyptians found Mubarak's speech moving, especially his wish to die in the country. But as an outsider, I found it reflected the contempt for politics which has been characteristic of his career. He said, for example, that the demonstrations had "become regrettable confrontations driven and dominated by political forces seeking escalation". For Mubarak, all politics is undesirable. For him, running a country is about order, obedience, security and stability, not about dialogue, compromise and equal partnership.   


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