Half way through Hosni Mubarak ‘speech, I caught myself wishing his phone would ring. Of course it didn’t. But that’s the only thing that sets it apart from the declamatory and dogmatic speech of Tunisia’s “dethroned” president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mubarak ‘speech remained true to the very anachronistic template of prettified bromides of democracy and nebulous assurances of future reforms to which today’s Arabs have grown allergic. Here is an Arab leader who announces he takes his responsibilities seriously after having obviated those very same responsibilities and snubbed the demands of his constituents for the past thirty years. What the demonstrators heard in it is the death knell of a delusional relic despot, a dire portent of how disconnected he is from the reality of the youthful Egyptians calling for his departure today, how untuned he is to their aspirations. Moubarak’s nomination of Omar Suleiman, the septuagenarian dinosaur most Egyptians see as the embodiment of the repressive intelligence apparatus that has sustained the current regime all these years and one of the few establishment elites intimately aware of Mubarak’s surreptitious dealings with Israel and the U.S. and most likely to protect them, as his first Vice President further galvanizes that fact.
The people, on the other hand, have become increasingly sensitive to his equivocation and mendacity. Unlike their parents, the majority of the demonstrators were not even born when Mubarak came to power and are not impressed by his achievements during the October War of 1973 or his leadership as the commander of the Egyptian Air Force and deputy Defense Minister, nor as Anwar Sadat’s deputy. They don’t see him as a purveyor of hope like their parents once did, but rather as a harbinger of economic squalor, intellectual hebetude, and political dyspnea.
The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have laid bare an unsettling fact about Arab countries today: the absence of an iconic and unifying figure with the necessary experience and stoutheartedness to fill the political vacuum generated by such popular outbursts. Arab dictators have systematically imprisoned and tortured political hopefuls whose perspectives they deemed unaligned with the establishment’s. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Arab demonstrators seem to nurture the misleading notion of an instant democracy; they know what they don’t want – Tunisians don’t want Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Egyptian don’t want Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party – rather than what they want. The Arab mind today is shrouded in the fallacy that by removing what they don’t want what will remain will certainly be what they want. They couldn’t be further from reality.
Of course they want a better economy, a democratic political system that guarantees individual freedoms, an equitable repartition of the nation’s wealth. These are abstract concepts difficult to translate into reality in the absence of an experienced iconic and unifying political figure upon whom the people have bestowed their trust and who can engineer and execute implementation strategies; a checks and balances system to pull the emergency brakes when such iconic figure drifts into opacity will be required. It is a gradual and long-winded process that requires tremendous patience and sacrifices and that will certainly not deliver the immediate positive results the demonstrators are thirsting for.
In the meanwhile, grave threats lurk. Undemocratic Islamic political groups with established support networks will seek to unilaterally fill the political void; interest groups with foreign ties will maneuver to influence and corrupt the system; an initially softer dictatorship will set in to lull the people into docility and give birth to a new coterie. The seat of Ben Ali is still warm and assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, the top-ranking US official on the Middle East, is already meeting officials from the Tunisian transitional government. He pledged that the U.S. is willing to provide any support to insure the formation of a democratic government. What the Honorable Mr. Feltman is in fact doing is bargaining in dollar value to insure that the newly formed government will support the U.S. policy in the region. The Arab street will be thrown into a vicious cycle of violence and demonstrations. Its only strength right now is its consensus on what they do not want, but that could easily be eroded by a well designed machination that could target pronounced social, ethnic, religious, and ideological fault lines.
The United States Middle East foreign policy is at stake if the regime in Egypt changes. Much of that policy rests on the 1979 peace treaty Egypt and Israel signed. Hosni Mubarak has unconditionally aligned himself with that policy and stood as a protective bulwark to Israel. He reaped enormous profits in economic and military assistance. The Congressional Research Service estimates the aid Egypt receives at two billion dollars annually, second only to Israel. Egypt is the only country in the world the Pentagon allows to run its own factory of M1A1 Abrams tanks. The guarded response of the Obama administration draws from the 1979 Iranian revolution that led to the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reda Pahlavi, a strong U.S. ally, and the 2006 Palestinian election that propelled Hamas. The Obama administration assesses that in the absence of Mubarak or his deputy, only two governance scenarios are possible: a militant Islamic government that would, in the best case, reexamine the 1979 peace treaty and, in the worst case, rescind it, or a military dictatorship that would enforce stability, honor the 1979 peace treaty, but would certainly upend the image of the U.S. as a proponent of democracy in the world.
This is the kind of popular uprising the Bush administration was dreaming to see happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the stuff the Obama administration would have loved to see succeed in Iran. One has to wonder why the U.S. is not actively supportive of the Egyptian and Yemeni streets. And as I was watching the demonstrations in the streets of Cairo on TV, with the sound muted, Amadou & Mariam’s Nangaraba blaring from my stereo, it downed on me. The Arab street does not buy the billion’s of dollars worth of U.S. military hardware garroting the streets of Egyptian cities and low flying over the demonstrators. Mubarak does.