Janice Winter
Janice Winter

Egypt: Obama, audacity beckons, once again

By Abiye Teklemariam and Janice Winter

Popular revolutions do not generally end with protesters storming presidential palaces. Success is most often achieved by their ability to breach the unity of the regime’s power base. Such divisions manifest in several ways: reluctance of the armed forces to take action against protesters, regime moderates distancing themselves from the worst aspects of the dictatorial rule and insiders jockeying to gain power and protect their interests. Based on the events of the past few days, no such divisions seem evident in Egypt. The coercive machinery of the state remains intact. The army, despite its lofty rhetoric about its responsibility to citizens, remains solidly behind the regime — as it has been since the 1952 revolution. Members of Mubarak’s police force are back on the streets of the country’s major cities masquerading as pro-Mubarak protesters, their shift in tactics honed to the realities of people-power protest. Crackdown on the revolution’s most influential organisers continues.

But the single biggest signal of the regime’s confidence that it will survive is the behaviour of the most vacillating and opportunistic of its members. After the unexpectedly large protests last Friday, a number of purportedly reformist members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) proved all-too eager to sit on the fence, calling for political changes without actually denouncing the government. Earlier this week, in response to the regime’s well-orchestrated attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators by its undercover thugs, these members finally climbed down from the fence, criticising the opposition for initiating the mayhem and praising Mubarak’s efforts to resolve the impasse. Their shift in response suggests a conviction that Mubarak has a workable strategy to beat off protesters. Like so many examples of collective human endeavours, revolutions and counter-revolutions are affected by self-prophecy: when regime supporters — loyalists and opportunists alike — are confident, it feeds into resilience.

This is why what happens in the next few days is significantly more important than the first few days of the revolt in affecting the balance of power between pro-democracy forces and authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world. The regime in Egypt now seems far more secure than at any moment since last Friday. Some anti-status quo moderates who joined hardcore protesters that day, have since declared victory and gone home after Mubarak’s vacuous “concession” speech. Others who initially appeared ambivalent about the protests have since turned openly hostile to them, placing the blame for chaos and instability squarely at the feet of peaceful protesters, rather than the government which declared curfews and sent the army to block roads. At this stage of a protest, the game for Mubarak is to wear down the patience and spirit of hardcore protesters. In addition to unleashing thugs, the regime may cut food and medical supplies to already drained and injured protesters. The ring leaders of the hardcore movements that mobilised the uprising are being hunted down in an attempt to create what political scientists call “network failure”. The formula seems clear: outlast them, beat them.

There is no doubt that dictators all over the world are carefully studying the feasibility of the Egyptian playbook. In the past, these regimes crush people-power protests either by acting ruthlessly before a protest becomes sequential, or by massacring marchers if the response comes late. What demonstrators in Cairo are encountering is a different scenario. Caught by surprise, the regime was not ready for a swift and decisive crackdown at the first stages of the protest. It took at least five days before it regrouped. By that time, the protests had already snowballed. But instead of a Hungary 1957 or a Tiananmen, what we are seeing as a response is a mixture of facade concession, diversionary propaganda and chaos to divide the protesters, and heart-wrenching mob attacks to scare them. If indeed this well-crafted strategy works, Mubarak will go down in history as revolutionising regime responses to popular protests. When army officers dither or opportunists contemplate jumping ship in the face of street action, dictators will flag the Egyptian experience to convince them that even late reactions can be successful without pyrrhic costs. Outlast them, beat them.

If Mubarak’s strategy fails, pro-democracy activists in many dictatorships will be emboldened. When history books are written, they will say that this was a regime that refused to give up without a fight; that it used a devilishly brilliant plan to fight protesters; that had it not been for the extraordinary hardiness of the protesters, the regime would have won — yes, it came close to winning. This was, the books would conclude, a somewhat different scenario from an almost identical revolt in nearby Tunisia, where its dictator fled the country a day after the protests engulfed the capital city. This does not mean that dictators would not resort to the classic methods, but the risks and problems of those methods in a world of amplifying social media would remain. Mubarak had tried to sidestep them without success. The stage is therefore set for a fight between protesters who are inspired by the victory of popular uprisings in North Africa, and regimes that have limited response strategies.

The Obama administration, having framed the Egyptian uprising only in the context of Middle-East politics, seems unable to recognise the significance of a victory for the popular uprising in the Arab world’s most populous and influential nation to pro-democracy activists worldwide. It is not late for that. Many brave demonstrators are still out in the streets fighting the regime. Today, thousands more will join them in another round of protests. America’s words and particularly its actions can swing back the momentum to the protesters. President Obama, this is a moment for audacity, not fear!

Abiye Teklemariam is a research fellow at the department of politics, Oxford University. His research focuses on social media and democracy in authoritarian African countries.