Egyptian Regime: Negotiating In Good Faith, Or Just Buying Time?

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WASHINGTON – The updates from Cairo create a mixed picture that invites caution in any attempt to “declare victory” for the urban, youth-led uprising. True enough, the demonstrators show that they have staying power, for now. They keep going to Tahrir Square in central Cairo. They keep voicing their demands for radical change –first and foremost president Mubarak’s immediate departure.

Protests go on

Wael Ghonim, the 30 year old Google executive held in detention because of his role in setting up the “cyber rebellion” and then released, is now the hero of the hour for the “real revolutionaries”. Speaking to the big crowds in central Cairo, he proclaimed on Tuesday that: “We will not abandon our demand –and that is the departure of the regime”. Certainly thousands of demonstrators share the same desire. But the “departure of the regime” does not seem likely.

On the contrary, the general feeling that one gets is that the broader Egyptian population, while generally supportive of the demonstrators, is eager to see this whole thing over and get back to a “normal” life; a life in which banks are open, salaries are paid, shops are supplied, children go to school, and so on.

The regime retains its power

And, if this is really the prevailing popular sentiment, then the regime still retains the advantage , as it has resilience, being still in control of all the levers of power. Indeed, this regime, as brittle and antiquated as it may be, so far has shown remarkable staying power. It did not dare crush and defeat the revolt through massive use of force, showing that it is sensitive to the international public relations disaster that a violent end to the uprising might have brought about. But, at the same time, the massive, unprecedented rebellion could not cause the regime to crumble. Again, its main institutions are still intact. It still has the loyalty of the army and the rest of the security apparatus, as far as we can see.

Mubarak to stay

Most importantly, the loud demand for the forced resignation of president Hosni Mubarak has been simply ignored. Which is to say that, so far at least, this urban uprising has not morphed into a revolution leading to “regime change”. The regime suffered blows and clearly lost the international public relations battle. But it is still there, almost intact and still in charge.

The rebellion succeeded in putting on the table the need for reform. But the way forward is not at all clear –the end game even less so. Indeed, while promising to engage the opposition in a new dialogue aimed at charting a genuine reform process, including constitutional amendments that would open up the political process, it remains to be seen where all this is leading to. Again, the opposition has the weapon of public demonstrations. The regime, however, retains all the” real”, tangible weapons.

Negotiations in good faith?

The perception at this still early stage is that Vice President Omar Suleiman, who has been placed in a prominent position in order to deflect attention from the hated Mubarak , is very much in charge and is leading this process. This is not a tottering government in a panic mode, trying to deflect popular anger by giving everything away. Sure enough, there is an ample agenda on the table. And, in theory, all this could lead to a new legal framework that should make free election more likely, a few months from now. And, again in theory, free elections could lead to the end of the regime.

But the suspicion lingers that these negotiations are dilatory tactics, empty promises made by an entrenched power structure that is studying every possible avenue to retain as much power as possible for the longest period of time, at the same time telling the broader public opinion that all change needs to happen respecting “constitutional order”. Their idea of secret police enforced order? Based on a constitution that has clearly created a totally rigged game?

Establishment not willing to give up

My hunch is that the old establishment, whatever Mubarak’s personal fate may be, has not given up. They think that, given their continuing control of the real levers of power –the army and the police– and the allegiance of the economic oligarchies that prospered under the regime, they can still win this thing. Sure enough, they have to give something away. But not everything; and not too fast.

Opposition not united

Vice President Omar Suleiman is an intelligence services old hand. It is not lost on him that the opposition to the regime is not united. The movement has no leader of national standing and no real organization; no sustainable funding systems, and so on. The government game plan most likely is to give a little here and there, while consolidating its own base through more perks to its loyalists. (Look at the announcements of a 15% pay raise for civil servants and the promises to increase pension benefits). The hope is to drag this process until many among the least radical protester will get tired and go home, while many others will be very happy to get “something”.

Just an episode?

The real open question is whether or not this Tunisia-inspired spontaneous rebellion was just an episode, (even though large), of generic, if justified, popular unhappiness, or something that started a self-sustaining real reform process that will eventually lead to the modernization of the Egyptian society; a modernization that will include the real acceptance of pluralism, freedom of expression and the rule of law.

At the moment none of this is clear. The demonstrators who, negotiations notwithstanding, refuse to go home, clearly do not trust the sincerity of the regime. If past experience is any guidance, they have every right to be skeptical.

Part of a society coming of age

More broadly, we are witnessing here the historic phenomenon of a significant, albeit small, segment of a Middle Eastern society coming of age. This urban youth, unemployed graduates, professional people and more are yearning for what they understand to be modern, democratic institution. First and foremost they want an end to arbitrariness and prevarication. They can at least conceive modernity as the rest of the democratic world would understand it. They are pushing for it. Certainly what they wish for their country is something that we in the west would find totally unobjectionable.

The rest of the country is still in a different era

Having said that, it would be foolish to think that the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands marching and chanting really represent a consensus or the majority of a mostly poor, mostly backward country of about 80 million, for whom freedom and parliamentary democracy may be distant and truly foreign concepts.

And this dichotomy between the more educated urban elites protesting and everybody else is not lost on the ruling elites. The old regime and the economic oligarchies that thrive under its patronage probably think that they still have an edge. They may look at this upheaval as a big fuss engineered by an unrepresentative, if loud, segment of a larger society that is still indifferent to all this clamoring for elections and democracy.

Will the ruling elites embrace change?

As the urban protests could shake them, but not dislodge them from power, will they eventually come to their senses and understand that what these urban protesters demand today will be demanded by larger social segments tomorrow? Do they want to finally embrace democracy and human decency; or do they stubbornly believe that they can hang on for ever?


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