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NOW

Hosni’s very balanced system

The Obama administration’s recent shifts on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have betrayed American confusion over the way his regime is structured. That’s mystifying: Egypt is among America’s closest Arab allies and the second-largest recipient of foreign aid.
 
Last week, President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “My belief is that an orderly transition [in Egypt] must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and it must begin now.” Obama’s press secretary clarified the thought a day later, observing: “When we said ‘now,’ we meant ‘yesterday’ ... That's what the people of Egypt want to see.”
 
However, over the weekend the United States backtracked from its demand that Mubarak exit quickly. In Munich, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned against too early a departure, declaring that a two-month deadline for a presidential election “doesn’t give anybody any time” to prepare for a smooth changeover.
 
The flip-flopping showed how little the United States has grasped the greatest talent of Arab regimes: manufacturing stalemate. Amid the rapid developments soon after Egypt’s saga began, the administration thought it could direct a speedy change in gears. Mubarak would quietly leave office (and American officials and envoys were on hand to push him out), his recently-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, would take over for a transitional period, and Egypt would move toward stability, supervised by the pro-American military.
 
That may yet happen, but the Americans never asked why Mubarak resisted this convenient scenario, and why the army has seemed so reluctant to disagree with him. The fact is that even to the hardened men of the Egyptian regime, Mubarak is a patron whom they’re not used to dealing without. For three decades the president has protected their interests, has appointed most of them to their posts, knows their dirty little secrets and their enmities, and overall has structured Egypt’s military, political and economic hierarchies in such a way that different power centers can cancel each other out.
 
For Washington to assume that Suleiman has the legitimacy to abruptly replace Mubarak is to assume –optimistically, even hubristically – that the chief of the General Intelligence Directorate has the unanimous backing of senior military commanders and other officials. Suleiman may yet earn that legitimacy, but he will have to work very hard to do so in a system in which fellow officers will make him pay a steep price for their approval. They will expect him to defend both their personal welfare and that of the armed forces. Moreover, Suleiman was only promoted under duress, consequently his latitude to make concessions to the opposition is limited.
 
Herein lays a dilemma: If Mubarak stays on in office, even with restricted powers (if this is in any way realistic), Suleiman’s margin of maneuver in a transitional period will be narrow; but if Mubarak leaves office, Suleiman will struggle even more to fill the ensuing vacuum. Mubarak sits atop an equilibrium that he has imposed and presided over for many years. He is the glue tying together the different limbs of the regime writ large – the armed forces, the security services, the National Democratic Party, the military-dominated economic sectors, the pro-Mubarak business elite, and so on.
 
This is hardly to suggest that the Egyptian leader must stay in power. Rather, it is to point out the complexities of getting him out of power, which the Obama administration should have been more sensitive to before sonorously setting a virtual deadline for Mubarak’s removal.
 
In assuming that Egypt’s institutions could be bent out of shape in line with their own priorities, the Americans failed to see that Egypt doesn’t quite function in that way. Its institutions may often be dysfunctional, but that doesn’t mean that Egyptians will readily endorse their debasement. Which is why Mubarak’s foolhardy project to bring his son, Gamal, to power sat so poorly with his countrymen.
 
Barack Obama will need to show more patience than he has shown to resolve his Egyptian headache. He failed to hoodwink Mubarak, but the answer lies not in hoodwinking the protestors. Washington cannot afford a void in Egypt, but nor should it presume that its own salvation lies in sponsoring a new authoritarian leadership.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of the recent The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster)

  • momo

    eyeonbeirut Suleiman still in the system because he's a member of the governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he is just no longer VP because there is no longer a P for him to be a V for, please update your info.

    February 14, 2011

  • Ahmadi

    EUREKA FAWAZ I'VE FOUND IT! you are so helpful my friend took your advise and I found it the youngian regime change in syria and iran you were talking about, I first though you were just inventing stuff as you normally do but hey there it was in black and white. No wait that was not m.young it was w.junblat, but you can understand mohammad's confusion micheal and walid look so much alike, it's uncanny like I'm looking looking at identical twins, see? http://img189.imageshack.us/i/jumblattyoung.jpg/

    February 13, 2011

  • previous student

    I am not surprised that MY is one more time wrong on his analysis, 8 days after his article publishing date , Mubarak & Sleiman are both out of teh system . The move was simpler than what MY made it complicated.

    February 12, 2011

  • Sami

    Ahmedi, do your own research.Hint:Google.

    February 12, 2011

  • Me

    Good luck to the people of Egypt, hopes their own dream and aspirations get fulfilled not anyone else's idea of freedom and justice.

    February 11, 2011

  • Ahmadi

    fawaz, still waiting on those links of youngian calls for regime change in syria or iran from your post there must be hundreds of them.

    February 11, 2011

  • halim

    "The flip-flopping showed how little the United States has grasped the greatest talent of Arab regimes: manufacturing stalemate" The USA created this stalemate Mr young and the egyptians are turning it into a new beginning.. Mubarak is in Sharm el-Shaykh now.. and Mrs Merkel is probably preparing a nice bed for him by now...

    February 11, 2011

  • Sami

    Mrabba,thank you for your comment.We try to think and act "independent" of the American plans for the "new Middle East" as Miss Rice predicted,but we are accused of being Iranian.I dont think that Mr. Young is "America-centered";he is Lebanese centered but with a compass different from the one other Lebanese are using.His compass points east to Iran and Syria while ours points south to Israel.Aoun replaced his compass only AFTER Syria left Lebanon and realized that Iran never ever attacked Lebanon.May be one day Mr. Young will also realize the same things that Aoun is aware of.I find it strange that Washington denies the Palestinians the same rights it worked very hard to give to South Sudan,as if the Sudanese are ready for "democracy" more than the Palestinians.Watch this tape on youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVmiAR5nvJE&feature=related you may "enjoy" it as much as I do.

    February 11, 2011

  • halim

    Dear Mr. Fawwaz. Thank you for this remarkable sentence: "I cant see Washington's "salvation" relevant to anything short of what the Egyptian people's demands." I think that Mr. Young's articles are completely America-centered. I also think that it is time now to put America's ideas, fears, interests, behind our backs and start to think in a different independent way.

    February 11, 2011

  • Sami

    يقول سيلفان شالوم، نائب رئيس الوزراء في اسرائيل، المولود في تونس عام 1958 «أشعر بالخوف اليوم من أننا أمام مرحلة خطرة جداً إزاء التحولات الجذرية في العالم العربي. اليوم تقف إسرائيل والأنظمة العربية في صف واحد ضد الأصولية الإسلامية. ما الذي سيحدث إذا تحولت الأنظمة العربية إلى أنظمة ديموقراطية؟ كان المثال تونس في الأمس، واليوم مصر. ماذا سيحدث غداً، هل ستسقط دول عربية أخرى؟ إن حلفنا الأمني مع الأنظمة العربية (الموجود في الحقيقة) قد يكون في طريقه إلى النهاية». الثورة أم الاستقرار؟ التغيير أم الأمر الواقع؟ تقلق هذه الأسئلة أوروبا والولايات المتحدة وبالطبع إسرائيل. وتقف تلك الأطراف مذهولة امام ما يحدث في أقطار الوطن العربي التي كسرت شعوبه جدار الخوف ونزلت إلى الشوارع تطالب بحقوقها في الحرية والحياة.from al safeer news paper

    February 11, 2011

  • Sami

    2-Washington readily accepted,sponsored and totally supported all the people's revolts against the communists regime in Eastern Europe.It did not take into consideration either "void" or another authoritarian" regime, as long as the coming regime is pro Washington.It appears that Washington is more concerned with "stability" rather than with democracy.Stability,by extension, means the preservation of the Camp David accord.I am betting that if few demonstrations announced that they are there to preserve the Camp David accord,that the USA will send Air force one to carry Mubarak out of Egypt.Washington wants assurances that Israel's borders with Egypt remain quiet AND Rafah passage remains closed.Any future regime that does not provide these assurances will be stamped "authoritarian"by Washington.But Mr. Young, with all due respect,do you not see that the most powerful,organised and popular party is the brotherhood? The 1991 elections in Algeria is an example.

    February 10, 2011

  • Sami

    1-M.Young,I have never read an article as many times as I have yours.I found no trace of the word "democracy".There is no clear or precise call for Mubarak and his regime to pack up and leave.You are warning us that the institutions will disintegrate in case Mubarak was to leave." He is the glue tying together the different limbs of the regime writ large – the armed forces, the security services, the National Democratic Party, the military-dominated economic sectors, the pro-Mubarak business elite, and so on".Then you warn us that "Mubarak is a patron whom they’re[the members of his regime] not used to dealing without". At the end of your article you ask that Washington be "patient","Washington cannot afford a void in Egypt, but nor should it presume that its own salvation lies in sponsoring a new authoritarian leadership".I cant see Washington's "salvation" relevant to anything short of what the Egyptian people's demands.

    February 10, 2011

  • aladin

    some people are blinded by media brainwashing....." you are with me OR against me" m fawaz comments are accurate vision of a new reality which had to come one day due to israel's continuous reject of peace

    February 10, 2011

  • Ahmadi

    fawaz, link please to the youngian calls for regime change in syria or iran.

    February 10, 2011

  • less is more

    The West is the cause for the lack of democracy in the middle east. Forget about the fact that until a couple of weeks ago the only country that had an ex-president, not in exile, in prison or murdered was Lebanon. A despot and dictator are fine with some as long and he hold the righteous ideology.

    February 10, 2011

  • Michael Young

    M. Fawwaz. Evidently, unless one uses your precise language, one must be saying the exact opposite of what you're saying. When I observe that the article is "hardly to suggest that the Egyptian leader must stay in power. Rather, it is to point out the complexities of getting him out of power"; and when I conclude by writing "Washington cannot afford a void in Egypt, but nor should it presume that its own salvation lies in sponsoring a new authoritarian leadership", I think the message is clear. Get rid of Mubarak and the kind of regime he represents, but do it in such a way, as the article implies throughout, that the system does not enter into a dangerous vacuum (and by extension allows the army and anti-democratic forces to pick up up the pieces). But perhaps you read the article so often that you ended up missing the argument.

    February 10, 2011

  • halim

    Mohammad, thank you for your comments. I found them much more relevant than the article. I just read this on the internet page of the times: Saudi Arabia has threatened to prop up President Mubarak if the White House tries to force a swift change of regime in Egypt.

    February 10, 2011

  • Sami

    2-What if Young had the opportunity to write about these two revolutions as they were taking place.I bet he would have called for keeping the Shah a little longer because there will be a "void" in his absence.Strange that some try to board the train after it left the station while some try to convince us that it will be derailed as soon as it departs.Their reasoning is that Mubarak built the train tracks and without him,the train and its passengers are doomed.It is obvious to anyone watching events that there are three strategic straights that,if controlled,can have a negative effect on the West's vital interests.Hormoz,Bab Al Mandab and the Canal.Iran controls the Hormoz straights and the two others are in the making. Predictions, the Egyptian army will be "allowed" to enter Sinai,Rafah will open and the Shiaa crescent(as mentioned by king Abdallah of Jordan)completed.The future is looking grim for Israel and for those who are worried about it.

    February 9, 2011

  • Sami

    1-I read and re read this article several times trying to find one sentence that calls for the departure of Mubarak according to the Egyptian people's wishes/demands.If the subject was Syria or Iran we would ,certainly,find several Youngarian calls for their leaderships departure.Even without any popular uprising in Iran/Syria, Young constantly calls for the destruction of the two regimes in Syria and Iran.I, also, searched for his favorite word "democracy",whenever he writes about Syria/Iran,but found none.I ,also,gave up on looking for any mention of the Egyptian people's demands for the total destruction of the Mubarak regime, including Suleiman and the rest of Mubarak cronies.Young warns us on either void or another authoritarian regime as if Egypt will disintegrate if Mubarak was to depart.Two similar revolutions come to mind :1- The French revolution that changed Europe's future and 2-The Iranian revolution that changed the Middle East's dynamics.

    February 9, 2011

  • Georges Butros Estaphan

    The US Government looks like it is trying to remove the symbol of tyranny, while keeping the totalitarian regime in place as so thereby killing off the democratic impulse in Egypt. I guess they want to repeat the success of BP/UK/US in assissinating the parliamentary democracy of Iran in the early 1950s - the consequences of which we endure 60 years later. And if the Obama has success, we can expect in 60 years time to reap the consequences of America's consistent opposition to democracy in the Middle East.

    February 9, 2011