“Cairo finito” is the verdict of one Mubarak supporter as I head down the Corniche beside the Nile, all-seeing river.
This great city’s not finished, but the peaceful phase of Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising is. An orchestrated riposte from Mubarak has begun, couched in father-of-the nation concern, invoking the specter of “chaos,” deploying busloads of thugs (and a couple on camels), promising change from the very fountainhead of immobility — himself, no less, unyielding generalissimo of 30 years.
Nice try, Hosni. His regime is scrambling to stem the tide. Omar Suleiman, now vice president and long Mubarak’s security guru, chose a good-cop role Thursday after 24 hours of bad-cop thuggery. He spoke of outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood. He said Mubarak’s son Gamal would not run in September presidential elections. Many Egyptians aren’t buying it. Why would they? Look at the language in which Mubarak couched his promised exit in September: “I say in all honesty, and regardless of the current situation, that I did not intend to nominate myself for a new presidential term.”
So, this stubborn man — who has ruled with the sweeping powers of an Emergency Law since Anwar el-Sadat’s 1981 assassination; who has broken countless promises to revoke that law; who has just overseen a farce of a parliamentary election that stuffed the legislature with his National Democratic Party; who has refused to offer any succession plan; who has allowed a coterie around his son Gamal to amass Farouk-like wealth through sweetheart deals — had planned to step down before his people rose up!
Of course, had Mubarak made the offer 10 days ago, things might have been different. But it is not the way of 82-year-old despots to see beyond the web they’ve spun. So they reap the whirlwind.
An “orderly transition” is the Obama administration’s objective. The priority must be transition. “A new beginning” is what President Obama sought when he came to Cairo in June 2009. That is impossible with the old extremist-breeding, modernity-denying Arab order. You cannot carve in rotten wood.
When Obama spoke in Cairo, the audience offered polite applause until he said this: “You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these elements, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Whereupon somebody shouted: “Barack Obama, we love you!”
Remember that cry, Mr. President. This is Obama’s first major foreign policy crisis where the United States has real leverage (not the case in Iran). If Egypt, the Arab hub, manages a transition to some more representative order, that victory will resonate in 2012. If the Egyptian mockery of democracy persists, Obama’s failure will be stark.
Already we hear the predictable warnings from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: This could be Iran 1979, a revolution for freedom that installs the Islamists. But this is not 1979, and Egypt’s Facebook-adept youth are not lining up behind the Muslim Brotherhood, itself scarcely a band of fanatics.
Hope for the Middle East — and ultimately Israel — lies in Egyptian reform that would create the first peace between a Jewish and an Arab democracy.
The U.S. can no longer advance its interests through double standards apparent to every thinking Arab. Ambivalent U.S. prodding for political opening has produced “nothing, nothing, nothing,” in the words of one frustrated observer. It’s time to be clear: Mubarak’s time is up.
In the swirling crowd, I spoke to two Egyptian lawyers, in their robes, from the northern town of Tanta. Ahmed el-Biery, 34, and Ahmed Romeh, 24, had traveled to Cairo to end “the only regime we have known.” Why their anger? “First, corruption, a bunch of them control the whole economy” said Biery. “Second, no laws, there are thousands imprisoned without trial. Everyone has the right to a trial.”
Biery looked at me with his intense green eyes. “I’m here for my children, so they live better.” That’s a very American idea. Another is this: a nation of laws is fundamental. Mubarak has been a firm ally, kept a cold peace with Israel, and maintained a skewed order at home. I don’t want to see him humiliated. But Obama must stand with Biery against a corrupted, dying regime.
This is not a recipe for chaos. The Egyptian army has shown superb professionalism. It can be the guarantor of an orderly transition. But a Mubarak-orchestrated free September election is unimaginable. The vote must be organized by a transitional civilian authority — and Mubarak can retire now to Sharm el-Sheikh. He’s earned the right, just, to die on Egyptian soil.