Time for Democracy in Egypt

Those politically savvy people who thought strongman, Hosni Mubarak would be out before the end of the first week of the Egyptian uprising better rethink the odds. For thirty years Mubarak has developed what can be called a deeply rooted dictatorial regime with regular White House access and annual largesse of some $1.3 billion in military equipment and payroll.

A former military man, he has been very alert to what is needed to maintain the loyalties of the police, the intelligence security forces and the army. If he goes, tens of thousands of those on his payroll could lose their patronage and be on the outs if his government is really replaced.

Moreover, he enjoys the support of both the United States and Israel for whom he has been a “stable” force against the pressures coming from Iran and its allies in the Middle East.

Arrayed against him are a variety of protestors, best known for their occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo and whose grievances are being reported hour-by-hour by the harassed international media, including the much attacked Al-Jazeera. Widely noted are the solidarity, self-help, stamina and democratic nature of the rebellion.

The state-controlled media, however, remains in Mubarak’s hands. He has shown he can cut off the entire Internet and mobile phone systems with what one commentator called “the active complicity of the major corporate servers.”

Going into the third week of the uprising, the regime has reopened the banks, and is urging businesses to open their doors. The government is striving to wait out the protestors, whose daily supplies and energies are being sapped by the overwhelming force arrayed against them to intimidate, weaken and keep their numbers down not just in the Square but also in other cities like Alexandria and Suez.

So far the army is remaining largely neutral. The regimes’ paramilitary gangs, in plain clothes, attacked the protestors inflicting fatalities and injuries to see if they will cut and run. So far, the demonstrators are well-organized in the Square and in other Cairo neighborhoods and are holding their ground. But roundups of some of the leading dissidents for brief imprisonments or worse and detaining or beating journalists continue.

What these developments reflect is that the Mubarak regime is still in charge, with just enough rhetoric of reform, while replacing some top leaders and dismissing the board of Mubarak’s political party, to show some slack. Mubarak’s tactic is to bend a little so as not to break.

But unless the largely urban, tech-savvy protestors can keep replenishing their ranks and bringing more of the frightened rural poor to their rallies, they risk being perceived as running out of steam. After all, they cannot be seen as receiving aid from abroad as the Mubarak government receives regularly from U.S. taxpayers. They cannot be seen as espousing “radical ideologies” as the Mubarak government espouses radical use of dictatorial violence and torture in the past and present.

In a way, the weaknesses of the protestors—no centralized leadership, no resources—are also their moral strengths. That is why their great fear is being infiltrated by organized provocateurs to creative “incidents” and smears. So they have their own checkpoints leading to the Square and are trying to keep good relations with the soldiers surrounding their encampment.

The Army is central to the perpetuation of the Mubarak forces and their oligarchies. Under orders to appear neutral and maintain order, the Army, like most Egyptians, is waiting for the next move of the two sides, though alert to its own interests which include business investments.

Rumors are rife. But it seems that some people designated by the protestors and representatives of the long politically suppressed Muslim Brotherhood have met with Mubarak’s people.

Mubarak’s newly appointed vice-president, longtime intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, with close operational contacts in Washington, appears to be making the decisions, if only to given the impression that Mubarak is relenting and may be willing to remain as a figurehead president until his term is up later this year.

All this disingenuous image of moderation may be the regime’s way of biding for time so as to more fully prepare to depress or destroy this popular uprising in various ways short of massive violence watched by the whole world in real time. Choosing the latter course could unleash forces in this impoverished and brutalized country of 80 million people that both the army could not contain and the already fragile economy could not endure.

If, as rumored, the trade unions exert their independence and form worker committees that could organize a general strike, then an alternative support structure could join the protestors to call for some economic relief, such as increasing wages and consumer subsidies. However, the Mubarak government has an inside watch on anything like such an initiative materializing as well. The regime is propagandizing that there is no alternative to itself being the transition, whatever that may be, other than chaos and radical revolution against the West.

What is the Obama Administration doing behind the scenes, beyond its statement in favor of a transition government planning “open and fair elections”? Will it stand with the people of Egypt and human rights if it has to stand against what analyst Samah Selim described as the “terrifying naked silence of multinational corporations and the national security state against civil society?”

Time will surely tell.

RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.


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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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