The Egyptian Army Chooses Sides

The position of Egypt’s armed forces on the current civil unrest has been one of the big question marks floating over the ultimate outcome.  That question was answered today, when a military spokesman went on Egyptian TV to declare “freedom of opinion in a peaceful manner is allowed for all” and “the armed forces are aware of the legitimate demands of the honest citizens,” as reported by CNN.

The spokesman went on to offer a commitment that the armed forces “will not use violence against this great people which have always played a significant role in every moment of Egypt’s great history.”  It doesn’t sound like they plan to sit by and watch the Egyptian police brutalize the protesters, either.

With violent repression off the table, and demonstrations set to increase in size during the coming days, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for Mubarak.  Dismissing his Cabinet didn’t seem to do the trick, nor did diluting his power by naming his very first Vice President.

Mubarak’s new cabinet ministers are striking a conciliatory tone, but the locals don’t seem to be paying much attention.  CNN quotes the new Finance Minister, Samir Radwan, promising “to show that this is a government that responds to the demands – the fair demands, I would say – of the people in Tahrir Square.”  He also suggested the reconstituted government needs “to use public expenditure to achieve some sort of social justice and a better distribution of the fruits of growth, as to the bottom 40% of this country.”  This is a government whose public debt is already over 80% of its GDP, with much of its wealth looted by corruptocrats.  At minimum, it would appear the Egyptian street is not excited by the prospect of the same guys distributing bread and soup.

The Obama Administration certainly doesn’t seem to be placing any bets on Mubarak being able to remain in power.  Their public statements have become Scrabble boards filled with the words “orderly,” “transition,” and “democracy” in various combinations.  Thus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Sunday: “We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy. And we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about. We also want to see an orderly transition.”

If Mubarak has lost all ability to persuade his population, and compulsion is off the table thanks to military decree, the contest becomes one of endurance.  That’s a contest Mubarak could conceivably win, as the paralyzed Egyptian economy begins to crumble, and the populace tires of policing its homes with sticks and knives.  The next move might depend on just how “impartial” the military plans on being.  An interesting analysis from STRATFOR over the weekend suggested the current unrest might be covering a kind of slow-motion coup from mid-level military officers, looking to push the Mubarak government and top military commanders aside.  It would appear one of the principle grievances of these disgruntled officers is – gulp – Egypt’s long-standing peace deal with Israel.

One positive result of prolonged unrest in Egypt is a new threat to the regime in Syria, a nasty and murderous government the Middle East would be better off without – provided they’re replaced by something less nasty, which is never a sure thing in those parts.  Syrian opposition groups have begun organizing on Facebook, according to a CNN report, and they’re calling for “better living standards, human rights improvements and a greater voice for youth.”  That doesn’t mean a toppled Assad regime wouldn’t be replaced by some fresh horror, but it would at least be nice to see him sweat for a while.

Unfortunately, the likely big winner in a revolutionary brushfire that sweeps away almost every government in the Middle East would be Iran, the one totalitarian regime that isn’t going anywhere.  The Iranians would love their chance at building an international Islamist movement that brings every nation except Israel (and maybe Iraq, at least for a while) under their influence.  There are two things they could do to cement domination over such a restructured Middle East.  Both involve cities – Jerusalem and Mecca.  Neither is pretty.

A favorable endgame for American policy is difficult to perceive in the chaos of Egypt, and the disarray of Washington.  Things look a bit more brutally clear from Teheran.  It’s not good to be involved in a contest where only the opponent can see his endgame.