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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is History Being Made?

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both." — Dwight D. Eisenhower

This afternoon President Obama, while on a campaign trip in Michigan, remarked that we were watching history being made. He went on to praise the “young people” for taking a stand for democracy. When he made this statement he and most of the media were virtually reporting the departure of Hosni Mubarak as the leader in Egypt. They were so sure this was going to happen and things would be taking a rosy path. Little di they know that Mubarak had different plans — plans that could not go forth without the support of the military.

The decision by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not to resign seems to have shocked both the Egyptian military and Washington. CIA Director Leon Panetta spoke earlier as if his resignation was assured and a resolution to the crisis was guaranteed. Sources in Cairo spoke the same way. How the deal came apart, or whether Mubarak decided that transferring power to Vice President Omar Suleiman was sufficient cannot be known. What is known is that Mubarak did not do what was expected.

All indications were that Mubarak would step down. That was the message transmitted in Washington with Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta telling Congress he has heard that Mubarak would step down. Somewhere along the line that understanding unraveled.

This now creates a massive crisis for the Egyptian military. Its goal is not to save Mubarak but to save the regime founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser. With the dawn on Friday and the thousands of Egyptians going to the mosque the military faces three choices. The first is to stand back, allow the crowds to swell and likely march to the presidential palace and perhaps enter the grounds. The second choice is to move troops and armor into position to block more demonstrators from entering Tahrir Square and keep those in the square in place. The third is to stage a coup and overthrow Mubarak.

The first strategy opens the door to regime change as the crowd, not the military, determines the course of events. The second creates the possibility of the military firing on the protesters, which have not been anti-military to this point. Clashes with the military (as opposed to the police, which have happened) would undermine the military’s desire to preserve the regime and the perception of the military as not hostile to the public. This would open the door for the Muslim Brotherhood to step into the breach and use ElBaradei as a front man.

That leaves the third option, which is a coup. Mubarak will be leaving office under any circumstances by September. The military does not want an extraconstitutional action, but Mubarak’s decision leaves the military in the position of taking one of the first two courses, which is unacceptable. That means military action to unseat Mubarak is the remaining choice.
One thing that must be borne in mind is that whatever action is taken must be taken in the next six or seven hours. As dawn breaks over Cairo, it is likely that large numbers of others will join the demonstrators and that the crowd might begin to move. The military would then be forced to stand back and let events go where they go, or fire on the demonstrators. Indeed, in order to do the latter, troops and armor must move into position now, to possibly overawe the demonstrators.

Thus far, the military has avoided confrontation with the demonstrators as much as possible, and the demonstrators have expressed affection toward the army. To continue that policy, and to deal with Mubarak, the options are removing him from office in the next few hours or possibly losing control of the situation. But if this is the choice taken, it must be taken tonight so that it can be announced before demonstrations get under way Feb. 11th after Friday prayers.

Even staying on as a figurehead is clearly insufficient for the opposition and Suleiman is seen as “one and the same” as Mubarak. Therefore, we are looking at a situation where in the coming hours, Egypt is about to see some of its largest demonstrations. People are extremely enraged following Mubarak’s speech, and now the military in Egypt has to make some very difficult decisions.

There are some very heavy and complex negotiations underway. These negotiations are not just about titles or positions. There is also a lot of money involved, a lot of assets at stake, a lot of political careers on the line, and that has resulted in a lot of confused signals and messages that we have seen going back and forth throughout the day. Despite all of this, the military has a very difficult decision to make, and that is why we are going to be watching to see if the military actually follows through, steps in and forces Mubarak out.

It is of course possible that the crowds, reflecting on Mubarak’s willingness to cede power to Suleiman, may end the crisis, but it does not appear that way at the moment, and therefore the Egyptian military has some choices to make. The next 24 hours will be critical for Egypt and the Middle East.

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