Tensions on the streets of Cairo continue to rise. Looters have taken advantage of the widespread disappearance of the reviled police to smash and grab what they can. Gangs have attacked prisons to release Muslim militants held there along with hundreds of common criminals, who have added to the chaos. The Egyptian army, which was welcomed yesterday by the teeming crowds of protesters in Cairo, has sought to restore order, but it is ill-equipped to handle the growing chaos triggered by the massive protests. Today, the military command dispatched two jet fighters and a helicopter to fly low over the city in a show of force that has raised the hackles of many opposition protesters.
The military’s ambiguous actions and President Hosni Mubarak’s effort to salvage his regime by naming intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice President and Ahmed Shafik as the new Prime Minister have done little to propitiate the angry protesters.
The Obama Administration has urged Egypt’s top military leaders to exercise restraint in their efforts to restore public order. The top ranks of the armed services, hand-picked by President Mubarak (the former head of the Air Force), appear to remain loyal to the regime. But there may be a growing schism between senior officers and many of the troops on the streets, who have reportedly embraced the protesters while protecting public buildings.
As tensions rise, Egypt’s military is under growing pressure to choose between shoring up a faltering regime with little popular support and throwing its weight behind the broadly based opposition coalition. Ultimately, the military is likely to protect its own long-term interests and work for an outcome that will restore calm to the streets without threatening its role as the guarantor of stability in Egypt. The longer the protests continue to rage, the more danger there will be that the army will splinter and troops will dissolve into the crowds. To avert such a disaster, military leaders are likely to be increasingly inclined to ease President Mubarak out of power in order to maintain the viability of the military as an institution.
The Obama Administration has sent mixed signals. Vice President Joe Biden denied that President Mubarak was a dictator, in an interview with the PBS News Hour, and stated that Mubarak should not step aside. Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on Fox News and urged the start of an “orderly transition” to bring about a “democratic, participatory government” while stopping short of calling for Mubarak’s ouster.
Elliott Abrams, who coordinated the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy at the National Security Council, has written that events in Egypt have vindicated the Bush Administration’s freedom agenda. Indeed, promoting freedom would be a preferable long-term goal to narrowly focusing on democracy, because anti-democratic political parties can too often manipulate democratic slogans and exploit political processes to seize power.
The Obama Administration should be careful not to empower anti-democratic forces such as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. There are unconfirmed reports that the Muslim Brotherhood may endorse former IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei as a transitional leader, who might attract support from the West. But ElBaradei himself has clashed repeatedly with the United States and would be a weak political leader who would eventually be swept aside by the tide of events, leaving behind an uncertain political situation that would benefit anti-democratic forces.
What is needed is an orderly transition to free and fair elections, but it is unclear how Egypt can best make that transition at the present time.