US Nod to a Coup, But Who Would Lead It?
Egypt's two-week uprising gathered heat, violence and breadth late Tuesday Feb. 8 just hours after it looked like subsiding. The flames spread through Egypt's major cities and ignited the entire country – from the Western Desert oases near the Libyan border all the way to El Arish in northern Sinai. The big industrial cities including Mahalla-el-Kebir and Helouan, centers of Egypt's military and steel complexes, were also caught up for the first time. As the demonstrations went into their third week they took on a different character: signs of political organization surfaced amid the spontaneous popular outbreaks and "revolutionary committees" sprang up to give them direction.
Wednesday and Thursday, Feb 9-10, the "revolutionary committees" and strikes spread like wildfire calling for the state-appointed managements of work places to be sacked and paralyzing entire sections of the economy.
Violence overlaid the street protests after 17,000 dangerous convicts broke out of prison (some of them organized by the Interior Ministry's security forces) and peppered the crowds. Slogans became more brutal, calling for Mubarak to be hanged, his "criminal family" – including the president's wife Susan and sons Gemal and Alla – to be arrested and their property confiscated, and all of them tried for the crimes committed in 30 years in power.
However sympathetic to the sufferings of the Egyptian people, trained observers monitoring the first two weeks of the riots have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that they cannot be sure the revolt was the purely spontaneous expression of popular outrage, because the two fundamental elements characterizing a genuine revolution are missing: surprise and randomness.
Eight players stir the Egyptian cauldron
The public staging was impeccable. The scenes appearing on TV screens worldwide were artfully conceived and directed, whether by Mubarak's men, a branch of his regime – security forces, undercover intelligence units or the armed forces, or by the United States. It is important to remember that even when such disorders are orchestrated and erupt at the same moment, they may be engineered by different hands and develop their own dynamic, from place to place.
In general, the demonstrations in the big cities, Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia, Mansoura and Tanta (Egypt's fifth largest city and the biggest in the Delta region) differ from one another. Eight players are pulling the strings; each has his own agenda and may be trying to influence or counterbalance unlooked-for occurrences in the course of the street action.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly names those players:
– The Barack Obama administration;
– Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his circle;
– The Egyptian Army headed by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami al-Anan;
– Egyptian General Intelligence headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman;
– Egypt's domestic security forces, now headed by new Egyptian Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy (which includes the muhabarat, the central security administration of the Interior Ministry and the Egyptian police);
– The ruling National Democratic Party. Under its new General Secretary, Hossam Badrawi, the NDP is the only political entity remaining organized and potent in the face of the riots and demonstrations;
– The ten or so mainstream opposition parties and factions like the April 6 Youth Movement headed by Ahmed Saleh which sprang up for the protest movement;
– The Muslim Brotherhood.
US dilemma: How to reconcile an army takeover with democracy
Hosni Mubarak was viewed in Washington as a transient Egyptian figure since mid-2008 – by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Since the street riots began on Jan. 25, Washington has assigned the same transiency to Vice President Omar Suleiman, expecting him to eventually hand the reins of government over to a new regime.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's US sources report that while endeavoring to contain the rampant crisis in Egypt, Washington is not clear on what kind of regime it wants to see in Cairo. US spokesmen talk fervently about free elections for the Egyptian people to vote for a democratic government and parliament. But behind the closed doors of meeting-rooms and the National Security Council's situation room, the name of the Egyptian chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sami al-Anan keeps on cropping up as the man designated to be Egypt's next ruler. The question now is how to reconcile the rise of a military ruler with the democratic process and do so in a way that is approved by the Egyptian street?
Washington has two main schools of thought on this subject:
1. The Turkish model in reverse: A Muslim-slanted democracy dominated by a partnership between Muslim Brotherhood moderates and amenable liberal or left-wing civilians, is one. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, is mentioned as a useful figure for getting this set-up underway.
It is obvious to the Americans that the army chief Lt. Gen al-Anan will never lend himself to an Ankara-style administration whose leader Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan managed to bounce the generals out of every position of influence in the country. They are therefore thinking in terms of running Gen. Al-Anan for president in charge of Egypt's foreign and security affairs and leaving domestic matters to an elected civilian government coalition.
Mubarak's fall has left his regime standing
The Egyptian chief of staff was sounded out on this plan in his secret talks in Washington in the third week of January, hours before the first protesters took to the streets of Cairo. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that he indicated he did not object to free democratic elections in Egypt or the introduction of a free press and a civilian government with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood – on one condition, that the army be personified in the next Egyptian president and preserve its pivotal role in the conduct of Egyptian national security.
2. The Moroccan model: Whereas the Turkish model-in-reverse dominated administration thinking in the first week of demonstrations, Obama's strategists began looking at Morocco in the second, when the Mubarak regime failed to collapse as anticipated by US intelligence agencies, especially the CIA. In Rabat, all the institutions of a democratic state are present – political parties, parliament, elections, but the king is all-powerful and he exercises power through his control of the army and the secret services.
But both solutions faced the same difficulty. While Mubarak and his family have been irreparably damaged, his political machine and regime remain intact. Positions of power have not collapsed or been abandoned by panicky office-holders. Therefore, Mubarak's downfall has not left a void for Washington to fill with a democratic regime and so achieve its main goal.
Worse, the other parties vying for power in Cairo have taken note of the regime's survival and their leaders are scrambling for footholds to fulfill their ambitions – a trend which is placing additional obstacles in America's path.
Yes, to a military coup. But who would lead it?
To break out of the standoff among the parties seeking to determine who takes over in Cairo, US administration and Egyptian power brokers were able Wednesday, Feb. 10 to agree on at least one point: The only way out of the smoldering mess into which Egypt is sinking fast is for the army to move in and take charge of government.
But while spokesmen in both capitals were openly talking about a coup as realistic option, they were quickly bogged down by a fresh quandary: Who will lead the coup?
Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, aged 76, is ailing and as detested in Egypt as much as Mubarak. Chief of Staff Gen. Al-Anan? Washington favors him but he does not have a revolutionary temperament and governing a country of 82 million would likely be well beyond his capabilities.
The new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, who is also a general? He certainly has the experience, strength and strong nerves for the job. However the first two, Tantawi and Al-Anan, can't stand him and would not accept him as the overall ruler of Egypt.
The longer everyone dithers, the more likely, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, that an unknown army officer will take matters in his own hands and surprise both Washington and the powerhouses in Cairo.
As to a guess at his identity, those sources are sure only that he will either come from the Egyptian 2nd or 9th Divisions stationed in the capital or the Republican Guard, because no officer serving outside Cairo would command the following for executing a putsch.
Hosni Mubarak: No exit without dignity
Buoyed by the sustainability of his regime under crippling pressure, President Mubarak is determined to hold on until the army, politicians and Washington find a way for him to step down in conditions that satisfy his sense of "personal and national dignity."
He wants to be assured that he does not go down in Egyptian and world history as a corrupt dictator, but a national hero. Until he is satisfied, he will hold fast to his refusal to transfer power.
The constitution is on his side. Every new law and executive action requires a presidential seal to make it legal and so he cannot legally be removed from the presidency against his will. The only way to depose him is by force of a military coup d'etat.
For now, the army chiefs, including Chief of Staff Al-Anan, are refusing to dishonor Egypt's former Air Force Commander and acclaimed national Hero of the "Ramadan War" (the 1973 Yom Kippur War) by bundling him out of the palace.
Omar Suleiman: Getting ready for national elections, propping up security
The 74-year old former overlord of Egyptian intelligence and newly-appointed Vice President has no intention, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Cairo sources, of serving anyone as an interim figure or keeping the presidential seat warm for Gen. Al-Anan or any other contender. Suleiman believes the prediction Mubarak aired on Feb. 3 that if the regime collapses, the country will slide into chaos. He has therefore rolled up his sleeves and is doing his best to preserve and buttress government, focusing on two initial steps.
First, he is reorganizing Egypt's security forces with the help of the new Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy.
In Suleiman's view, the Mahabharata security service emerged unscathed and with untarnished image from the popular disorders. The only force which incurred popular loathing was the Interior Ministry's Security Service and its thugs. It is now subject to a major overhaul.
The other important step undertaken by the vice president was to get his close and highly efficient crony Hossam Badrawi chosen to take over the office of ruling NDP secretary general from the leadership which resigned (including Gemal Mubarak) in one of the regime's gestures to placate the protesters.
Badrawi has lost no time in clearing Mubarak loyalists and old-timers out of the party machine, going from branch to branch to install young leaders and prepare the grass roots for the forthcoming elections to the Shura Council (the upper house of the Egyptian parliament) and the presidency.
The Vice President wants the ruling party to be fully prepared for when polling days come around and better organized than any of its rivals, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Neither of these activities suits Washington's plans for Egypt – hence the public bickering Tuesday, Feb. 8, between US spokesmen and Omar Suleiman.
White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters in his daily briefing. "Yesterday, I think Vice President Suleiman made some particularly unhelpful comments about Egypt not being ready for a democracy, about not seeing a lift of the emergency law." He went on to say: "I don't think that, in any way, squares with what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress."
Gibbs added that any change that takes place in Egypt "has to be tangible" and "has to be real and it has to be immediate and irreversible."
The Opposition: Marginalized
As the protest movement entered its third week, the opposition parties remained on the sidelines of the political processes and power struggles conducted between the Americans, Omar Suleiman and the army. The leaders of the 10 parties are deeply divided, aware that the major leagues are trying to manipulate them as pawns. Their leaders are trying to carve out an influential niche for an independent role – chiefly by controlling the demonstrations. But the street is responding to powers other than theirs.
The Muslim Brotherhood: Mostly passive
The Brotherhood has confounded all the grim forecasts of its menacing potential and effective organization. Except for scattered local demonstrations, it has remained the largest passive political power in Egypt, refusing to take part in the rowdy riots and political infighting.
This is not the place to analyze this fascinating phenomenon. It is a fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has chosen to sit out the most decisive moment in the last 60 years of Egyptian political history and await developments. Was this a calculated decision? Or might the Brotherhood have taken note that the most active elements of the protest movement were young and non-religious and that its chances of taking over government in Cairo through the ballot box are negligible.
Egypt's current upheaval saw no Muslim leaders in the forefront of the action. Rather than influencing events, the Brotherhood was carried by the tide.
Late Breaking News: Late Thursday, Feb. 11, pressure built up on the army to stage a coup d'etat and remove Hosni Mubarak that same night. Suspense mounted in Tahrir Square and Washington, where US sources assured the media that Mubarak was only hours away from stepping down. But as the hours slipped by, authoritative denials proliferated from Cairo along with an announcement that the president would address the nation shortly. Mubarak again announced he would not step down until his term ends in September. He only lifted the emergency laws pending the restoration of order in the streets.
The Egyptian standoff is therefore is back to square one: Mubarak still holds the last word – not the army, Tahrir Square or Washington.