Stephen M. Walt

The pharaoh strikes back

The pharaoh strikes back

The last day or two demonstrates that Mubarak has no intention of going down without a fight. At the same time, Egypt’s Prime Minister has expressed regret for the loss of life and is pledging an orderly transition. Where does this leave us?

First of all, the events in the past day or two confirm a point I’ve made before: revolutionary upheavals are very hard to predict and the final outcome often isn’t determined for weeks or months or even years.  I was obviously wrong about the potential for contagion from the original Tunisian catalyst, but not about the fact that authoritarian governments are often able to ride out these storms. I’m not saying that Mubarak will (and as I said a couple of days ago, I think the regime is fatally compromised even if he does hang on), but the past day or two reminds us that the regime is not without resources. To repeat myself further, the danger is that the onset of a significant violence will create a situation where extremists on both sides feel empowered, resulting in far more extensive damage to Egypt’s social order.

From a U.S. perspective, I’m with FP colleague Marc Lynch.  If Obama goes wobbly at this point, he’ll look even weaker than many people in the Middle East already assume he is.  Given that Mubarak is beginning to do exactly what Obama asked him not to do, now’s the time to distance ourselves even further. Obama should announce an immediate suspension of military aid to Egypt, while ordering the Pentagon to send a quiet message to Egyptian military commanders that aid will resume as soon as Mubarak steps down. We are playing the long game here, and need to take clear steps to ensure that we are not seen as complicit in dictatorial repression. Here I’m standing by my earlier remarks about the likely strategic consequences

From the perspective of the Egyptian leadership-and especially the new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, how do things look? Nobody is sharing any secrets with me, but I can still speculate.   I caught part of an interview that Suleiman gave on Al Jazeera English (which has been indispensable throughout this crisis), and I thought he was doing his best to sound reasonable and to hold out the prospect of substantial reform but in an orderly manner. The problem, as I noted yesterday, is that neither Mubarak nor Suleiman (a long-time Mubarak associate who runs the intelligence services) has much (any?) credibility as a reformer. If Suleiman really wants to lead an orderly transition via constitutional reforms and September elections, therefore, the smartest thing he could do is to get Mubarak to leave power now, take credit for having done so, and then to govern openly and explicitly as a caretaker. That’s just about the only way that Suleiman could gain a bit of credibility and legitimacy, and it might just make it possible to conduct a reform effort that could command broad acceptance.

One last point. In today’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne says that Obama’s handling of this crisis will ultimately be judged by whether we get an anti-American/anti-Israel outcome or not.  In his words, "Obama will be judged by results. If the Egyptian uprising eventually leads to an undemocratic regime hostile to the United States and Israel, the president will pay the price." I think he’s right as a matter of practical politics, but this view also reflects the widespread assumption that the United States government has the capacity to determine the outcome of unruly political processes of the sort we are now witnessing in Egypt. This is silly: Nobody is in control of events there, nobody knows how it will turn out, and it’s quite possible that we’ll get either a good outcome or a bad outcome no matter what the United States government does. That doesn’t mean the USG shouldn’t try to shape events to the extent that we can, but we should not forget that our capacity to mold them is inherently limited.  

I’m all for holding leaders accountable, especially when they do foolish things entirely on their own initiative (like invading Iraq). But we would do a better job of judging our leaders’ performance if we acknowleged that presidents are neither omniscient nor omnipotent.