The Cairo Marathon

The crowds are still gathering in Tahrir Square, keeping Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak under siege.  That’s not as bad a situation for Mubarak as it might sound.  Siege warfare is a contest of endurance, and the government always has an edge in such contests.  That’s why peaceful protests don’t have a very good record of landing knockout blows against dictators.  If the Egyptian dissidents see Mubarak off in September, they’ll be well ahead of the historical curve.

Some of the established government’s advantages are psychological.  The energy of a mass demonstration hungers for climax, in this case the resignation of Mubarak.  When climax is not achieved, energy begins to diminish.  Just as a military unit cannot be kept on high alert indefinitely, a crowd of demonstrators can’t stay pumped up forever. 

The Egyptian government has its supporters – every government does – and the passage of time serves to improve their morale.  A lot of them were probably in shock when the first flood of protesters hit the streets of Cairo, but they’ve recovered.  The Associated Press reports there appears to be “a campaign to flood pro-protester websites and Facebook pages with government propaganda and comments from regime supporters.”

Other factors in the regime’s favor are practical.  It’s a lot easier to sit inside the presidential palace than camp in the streets outside.  International support for dissidents always wanes over time, even though it may never dissipate completely, because foreign governments face their own internal pressures to keep the lines of commerce open with an uneasy nation.  The Category 5 storm of demands for Mubarak to step down “now, which means yesterday” from the White House has already been downgraded to a light drizzle of vague satisfaction that “a reform process is clearly under way.”

There’s also a tactical advantage to having flexible victory conditions in a conflict.  Mubarak has a good deal of wiggle room, because a dictator with total power has plenty to give away.  The Egyptian government just announced a 15 percent pay raise for its massive force of six million public employees.  Mubarak has promised he won’t run for re-election, or push his son into the presidential palace as his successor.  Unpopular officials have been sacked.  Obviously, all of these “reforms” fall short of what the protesters want, but each new concession serves to weaken the resolve of the uprising, as people begin asking themselves if something less than Mubarak’s immediate ouster might satisfy them.  Resolve is the only asset the resistance possesses.

The leaders of the uprising understand the game Mubarak is playing.  Pro-reform columnist Wael Abdel-Fattah described the situation as “nail-biting” to the Associated Press, accusing the regime of “pulling out the big guns, using psychological warfare, terrorizing protesters, isolating them from society and spreading the idea of Mubarak as a father figure.”  Another protest leader said, “The only thing the regime does is turn people against each other.  This is the scenario, and the goal is to win more time.”

Knowing the rules of the game is good, but it’s no substitute for having a winning strategy.  The initiative has clearly passed to the regime, as the protesters have few strategic options beyond continued endurance.  Mubarak has survived the “beating up protesters and journalists” stage, and made it past “Departure Day” last weekend, winning a hand where the opposition threw all its cards on the table.  Provided he does nothing foolish to arouse global condemnation, he’s got a pretty good chance of making it to his declared retirement in September.  If he doesn’t leave as promised, a new game begins.