After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared that he would “die on its [Egypt’s] land” yesterday, it became clear that he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
The clashes in Egypt today reflect a last push to stay in power. The “pro-government protesters” are clearly pro-government agents not protesters, as they include members of the police force that suddenly melted away days ago. The pro-Mubarak agents have surrounded Tahrir square blocking all the exits for the anti-Mubarak protesters, thereby preventing them from leaving even if they wanted to. The anti-Mubarak protesters, who have peacefully protested for days, are now under siege. Molotov cocktails have been raining down on the anti-Mubarak protesters, as the Egyptian army has completely passively stood by. This is no doubt a critical juncture.
The Mubarak strategy seems clear, if not desperate: split the opposition by announcing you will step down and permit elections in an attempt to look reasonable and appease the international community and fence sitters within Egypt. Then when the protests don’t disperse, create violent chaos by deploying thousands of “pro-Mubarak protesters” and hope that the anti-Mubarak crowd gets blamed for the unrest. The next step would seem to involve the Army inserting itself to “restore order,” but the prospect that would entail the end of the anti-government protests has to concern the opposition. With order restored, Mubarak slowly initiates some reforms, none of which result in him going anywhere.
With Mubarak pushing to hang on, attention is shifting to the response of the Obama administration. President Obama’s call last night that the transition to democracy begin “now” seemed to serve as a direct rebuttal to Mubarak’s speech yesterday. But Mubarak has directly shunned Obama, as today’s violence indicates. The White House says it was blindsided by today’s events and says it told Mubarak it wanted a peaceful transition. That call has clearly been defied. Middle East expert Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was interviewed by Josh Rogin of FP, explained:
Now there’s a strategic game going on between the Obama administration and Mubarak… Either the administration has some other strategy or they didn’t realize that there’s the potential for Mubarak to take the opportunity of the next few months to manipulate the political process to favor whomever he wants to follow him… I can’t believe they thought this would satisfy the crowds.
The ball is now back in Obama’s court. With the events of today, there is almost no chance the US could maintain a close relationship with an Egypt ruled by Mubarak. To do so would inflict a tremendous cost on the image of the US in the region and the world. There is no going back to the past status quo. That’s gone. Since there is now no going back in relations with Mubarak, it is time for the White House to go further and finally call for Mubarak to leave.