Hosni Mubarak is in a difficult spot. Angry mobs are burning stuff in the streets of Cairo and riots (or near riots) are widely reported in Suez and Alexandria. Egypt has been an important center of stability in the Mideast, a moderate voice in relations with Israel and the West. Anwar Sadat paid with his life for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel some 30 years ago. Mubarak, 82 (!!!), has ruled Egypt as a more or less benevolent dictator for the last 30 years.
He must be a tired old man. He’s 82 (!!) after all. Given that, why does he so stubbornly cling to power? He apparently has no plan for succession. Maybe he believes there is no one capable of staying the course in Egypt. One of his sons occasionally is mentioned as a successor. We’ve seen how well that works in North Korea.
On PBS Thursday night, Vice President Joe Biden said, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with—with Israel. …I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
But most Egyptians would.
The Wall Street Journal reports: “A succession of rallies and demonstrations, in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria, inspired by the popular outpouring of anger that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, pose a thorny problem for U.S. policy in the region.”
Egypt is one of those places most of us give little thought to until “it” hits the fan. And now that it’s hitting the fan, we’re getting crash courses on Egypt’s history. The grievances against Egypt’s government aren’t new. Protesters are angrily confronting police forces, ignoring a curfew declared by the government. Curiously, these crowds are decidedly more friendly to military personnel who have moved into these zones. Al Jazeera reports that soldiers in tanks in Cairo were surrounded by crowds, and the soldiers emerged from the tanks to shake hands with the crowds. Imagine that happening at Tianenmen Square in 1989!
Egypt’s Internet has been shut down. Egypt’s leading television anchors have apparently been put “on vacation,” reports Al Jazeera. The official media are showing live video of a peaceful city, only hundreds of meters away from the scene of the riot, which Al Jazeera so clearly illustrates above. And live video-audio shows loud cheers in the crowd, occasionally punctuated by explosions and/or gunfire.
Clearly, Mubarak must act to calm the situation. What he’ll do is unclear. And it presents many problems.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon (say that three times for a cheap laugh) urged Egyptian protesters and government forces alike to settle matters peacefully. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was equally milquetoast in her message: “As a partner of Egypt we are urging that there be a restraint on the part of the security forces, there not be a rush to impose very strict measures that would be violent and that there be a dialogue between the government and the people of Egypt.”
Sending in tanks is the more conventional method of quelling unrest.
The trouble in Egypt is just the latest focal point of what some pundits believe is the growing movement against dictatorships throughout the Arab world.
“A CNN analysis of secret and confidential cables published by WikiLeaks and its media partners reveals U.S. frustration with Mubarak’s lack of succession planning, concerns over stuttering economic reform and private criticism of the Mubarak government’s hard line toward domestic opponents.”
Egypt is an important piece in the global jigsaw puzzle, and if it should fall under the control of someone friendlier to anti-Western forces in the Mideast, the United States will lose a stable ally in this region. Mubarak is faced with a difficult choice: Use brute force to suppress the popular uprising, or resign and leave Egypt to an uncertain fate.
But something’s gotta give.