Five days of violent protests demanding his resignation have prompted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to appoint a vice president for the first time, tapping his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Besides running the Mukhabarat intelligence agency, Suleiman has good relations with the Egyptian military, and the U.S. State Department. CNN quotes a State Department spokesman as saying “he is someone that we have known well and have worked closely with.” He’s also personally loyal to Mubarak, having been instrumental in saving his boss from an assassination attempt in Ethiopia in 1995.
Mubarak also dismissed his entire cabinet, a move which would have satisfied the protesters if he had gone with them. As things stand, the streets are still in chaos, although military requests to observe an evening curfew to help crack down on looting have been largely heeded. At least 100 deaths and 2,000 injuries have been reported. There are rumors, spreading from
As security forces have withdrawn to protect their strongholds, the streets have become “like the Wild West,” as one Cairo resident told CNN. Massive gun battles have been overheard in the night. Residents have been arming themselves with knives and sticks to protect their homes.
Looting has become distressingly widespread, including a break-in at the Egyptian Museum that destroyed priceless artifacts, including two ancient mummies. Unfortunately, the Egyptian Museum turns out to be right next door to the headquarters of Mubarak’s political party, which the protesters have set on fire. It’s also unfortunate the Egyptian looters haven’t watched enough Hollywood movies to learn proper respect for the wrath of vengeful mummies. Hopefully they won’t start messing with any face-melting holy relics.
The army moved in to take control of the museum, and a group of Egyptian citizens even formed a human chain to protect it. The army appears to be remaining largely neutral in the conflict, but is leaning toward support of the protesters. Anti-Mubarak graffiti has been seen spray-painted on the sides of army tanks. Fox News reports an army captain openly joined the protesters, who carried him around on their shoulders while he tore up a photo of Mubarak.
The exact status of the regime is hard to determine. Reports continue to flutter about that Mubarak’s family has fled the country, although it seems as if every confirmation is quickly knocked down by a denial. Suleiman’s appointment as Vice President would seem to be a rather tepid reform gesture, in the face of such widespread unrest… but he might also be a good choice to hold the door while Mubarak exits, and begin forming a transitional government.
The Administration response has been subdued, and the President himself has said little beyond urging “restraint” from the closeted confines of a White House forum on YouTube. The Administration seems to be biting its lip and hoping the Egyptian urn it paid billions for doesn’t topple off the shelf and shatter.
The forces aligning to replace the Mubarak regime are not a cheerful lot. Caroline Glick, senior fellow for Middle East affairs at the Center for Security Policy, observes that the ostensibly secular opposition leader, Mohammed ElBaradei, supports the ominous Muslim Brotherhood and has recently spoken in their defense. He’s also either a useful idiot for Iranian nuclear ambitions, or willingly turned a blind eye during his tenure as a United Nations weapons inspector. A STRATFOR report, not yet verified, says the Egyptian police have abandoned the border with Gaza, and Hamas foot soldiers are pouring into the country to give the Brotherhood more muscle.
Most American foreign aid to Egypt goes into weapons for the army. If it becomes an Islamist state, those weapons will fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood… along with the Suez Canal, and strategic resources necessary to project American military power into the Middle East. Oil is heading for $100 a barrel, and if the Suez Canal is closed, the resulting economic shockwaves will roll throughout the world.
A hardline Islamist takeover might swiftly produce a humanitarian disaster among the large Coptic Christian community in Egypt, which has already suffered violent persecution. Then again, the Copts were not happy with their treatment by the Mubarak government, and there have been encouraging signs of solidarity from moderate Egyptian Muslims, who attended Christmas services after a deadly bomb attack on a church in Alexandria. Muslims who were willing to offer their bodies as “human shields” for their Christian neighbors will want something more than a jihadist dungeon state to replace Mubarak.
There is growing concern the uprising might spread against the regimes of Jordan and Saudia Arabia, which would be a cascading disaster for U.S. foreign policy. The door to the Arab world will be shut and barred with rifles we paid for.
The United States has little influence with any of the factions maneuvering for control in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Protesters have been running up to news cameras to show them expended tear-gas canisters stamped “Made in the USA.” ElBaradei has been vocally unhappy with the American response thus far, quoted in an L.A. Times piece as saying, “What is very disappointing to the Egyptian people is the message coming from the U.S., which is saying that we are going to work with the Egyptian people and with the government. Well, you have to make a choice. This is an authoritarian government and on the other hand the people have been deprived of their freedom for 58 years.” In case you were wondering, he gets to 58 years by throwing in Mubarak’s predecessors, including Anwar Sadat, a sainted figure in the annals of global peacemaking.
When it comes to foreign policy, there are no “reset buttons.” People who live beneath autocrats who rule for decades are not going to shake the Etch-A-Sketch of historical memory over their heads when a new guy gets into the White House every few years, and gives a big speech about how different his foreign policy will be. The dictator we’ve supported for thirty years has comprehensively failed his people, and they may trade him out for something even worse, as we saw in Iran near the dawn of the Mubarak regime. Our Egypt policy has dwindled to hoping for the best, and trying to figure out exactly what we’re hoping for.