Monday, 7 February 2011

War of Attrition

The struggle between the Egyptian regime and the protest movement has moved into a 'war of attrition' stage and there are no obvious options by which either side can break the deadlock decisively in its favour. The regime is playing on the economic disruption which the protests have caused, hoping that many people, especially small independent businessmen, will turn against the protesters because they cannot sustain prolonged losses. That is especially evident in the informal tourism sector and in the retail sector in central Cairo and other urban centres. After almost of sixty years of depoliticisation, unfortunately, many Egyptians have no idea of what good governance could be, especially those who have never travelled abroad to well-managed democratic countries. But it's unlikely that such sentiment will generate a counter-protest movement with the same commitment and energy as the protest movement itself, which has much to fear from a reinvigorated state. The regime is also reckoning on the corrosive effect of the state media, which continue to dismiss the protest movement as part of some incoherent foreign conspiracy. Behind the scenes, the state is no doubt trying to reconstitute the instruments of repression - the new interior minister today visited the premises of Central Security (riot police) in Darasa, northeast of the old city.
     On the other side of the equation, the protest movement shows no signs of erosion. The turnout in Tahrir Square has been large for the last two days, as the message spreads that the area is peaceful and festive, with little danger so far that visitors will be persecuted merely for attending. On Sunday evening people who left the area were chanting "Coming back tomorrow, coming back tomorrow." But it would hard to sustain a sit-in that continues for weeks without movement, and one might speculate that the organisers are thinking of new ways to maintain the momentum they had generated.
    On the international front the pressure on Mubarak has clearly eased. When US envoy Frank Wisner said on Saturday that Mubarak had to stay to oversee the 'reform' process, those who sympathised with the protesters were pleased that the State Department distanced itself from his remarks and Arabic television stations (along with 'Wise Man' Naguid Sawiris) said the administration would relieve of his position. But that dies not seem to have happened and in interviews on Monday State Department spokesman PJ Crowley gave the impression that the timing of Mubarak's departure was up to the Egyptians. It's more than a little reminsicent of the US position on Israeli-Palestinian talks -- let them work it between themselves, regardless of any principles and regardless of the gross disparity between the power of the two sides.
    Josh Stacher, who knows Egypt well and whose intellect I respect, writes in Foreign Affairs:
With Suleiman at the helm, the state's objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of "orderly transition" in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation.
That's certainly a real possibility but not a foregone conclusion. The attitude of Vice President Omar Suleiman is now relatively transparent, after his interview with Nile TV, and it's likely that armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan shares his views, but the dynamics of the relationships at the summit of power is still opaque. The behaviour of the soldiers on the streets also remains mysterious - they are checking identities more carefully and are suspicious of devices such as cameras and tape recorders.   

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