Back to Business as Usual in Egypt

Can Omar Suleiman be anything more than Mubarak 2.0?

Although the mass protests are still continuing across Egypt, with millions of people calling for the ouster of President Mubarak as well as genuine constitutional changes, it seems that the stars could be aligning for Egypt to return to its repressive former self. As impossible as it is to believe, the organized opposition parties seem to be walking lockstep with the United States and Mubarak’s appointed VP Omar Suleiman in an effort to perhaps appease the bustling protests with superficial changes to a political system deeply mired in cronyism and repression.

The United States (and Israel) have a clear interest in maintaining a pliant Egyptian government that will not hesitate to protest the status quo in the Middle East. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Americans have formally backed VP Suleiman to lead the government through a ‘transitional period’ while concurrently saying that an immediate ouster of Mubarak would endanger the democratic transition. Obama’s envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner – who has deep ties to Egypt’s lobbying firms in Washington – has come out and said that Mubarak should be able to retain his post and former US VP Dick Cheney praised the Egyptian President for his work of suppression for the last 30 years.

Now Suleiman – who has a terribly long and dark history of cooperation with the CIA involving rendition of terrorism suspects and torture – seems to be at the helm of the Egyptian government with Mubarak more resembling the governing style of the Queen. Suleiman met with representatives of the opposition – including the Muslim Brotherhood, though Mohamad ElBaradei was not invited to participate – and uncorked some ideas for reform that lacked both substance and guarantees. Like his interview last Thursday, Suleiman provided little to ensure the protesters that actual change is on the horizon. Though it won over the support of the Muslim Brotherhood (surprisingly), the conference between Suleiman and the opposition has widely been received as a hollow act that is probably setting the stage for a Suleiman presidency in September. However, while Suleiman is not Mubarak, real change cannot be expected under him:

“We should be realistic about who Sulaiman is,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Michele Dunne warned. “He is no white knight, he has no record of being in favor of democratization, and he is associated with widespread human rights abuses. Putting him in charge of a transition to democracy is like leaving your wallet in the hands of a convicted thief.”

“For this to be credible at all, Sulaiman will need to be hemmed in by as many commitments as possible and will need to be watched very closely, Dunne told me. “It is critical that the U.S. administration support the Egyptian opposition now in getting those commitments from Sulaiman.”

Suleiman hardly seems to be a good choice for democracy, a fact seemingly proven by the release of several Wikileaks documents demonstrating the vice-president’s scathing view of the Brotherhood and the electoral success it achieved in 2005. Despite his proven and obvious flaws, it seems as though the man who collaborated with Israel and the US to divide the Palestinians and seal off Gaza will soon be officially at the head of Egypt. It is difficult to say whether the transition will help move Egypt closer to democracy or simply a change of faces within the same despotic institution, though some are already looking for ways to curb the growing power of Suleiman with the understanding that a Suleiman regime will too closely resemble the last 30 years:

It would be wise at this point to curtail Suleiman’s power by handing out different functions to different vice-presidents as Mubarak withdraws from any lead role in handling the crisis. Some of what multiple vice-presidents could do:

  1. A vice-president to handle to act as a constitutional ombudsman, focusing on the enforcement of the rule of law and guiding the constitutional reform process. Could be someone like Tareq al-Bishri or Yehia al-Gammal.
  2. A vice-president to oversee and investigate the Ministry of Interior. Fully delegated to have the Minister of Interior answer to him, charged with preserving MoI documents, restoring the police’s presence, the dismantlement of the Popular Committees, and investigating the security vacuum. A prominent judge would be appropriate here.
  3. A vice-president for media and communications. This person would look at preventing any further tampering with communications by the authorities, and oversee state media to ensure equal access and the end of the propaganda and incitement of the last week. He would appoint a new Minister of Information to replace Anas al-Fiqi, who is chiefly responsible for the sad spectacle of state propaganda over the last week. Ideally, this should be a person known for media professionalism and neutrality: Salama Ahmed Salama, Hisham Kassem, etc.
  4. A vice-president that would oversee the relaunch of the economy, with economic ministers and the head of financial institutions such as the Central Bank and the Financial Services Authority directly answering to him — a kind of economic war room. Ideally, a prominent economist or even the respected head of the Central Bank, Farouk al-Ogda.

While such ideas could do much to curb the potential power of Suleiman, it is unlikely that any would be accepted by the regime. The United States, by backing Suleiman is widely seen as ‘willing to preside over the installation of yet another military strongman in Egypt,’ thus finding itself opposing its own democratic ideals. After the large talk of the importance of democracy – both by the neocons over the last decade or so and by the Obama administration – the final decision to abandon the democratic uprising is seen by many as a longterm strategic error. Although the Egyptian people are still in the streets, giving daily examples of ‘mundane heroism‘ acts of kindness and humanity while continuing to demand change, it seems as though those higher up are working to provide change that only ensures the continuation of the same. Robert Springborg sums up the pessimism engulfing the current state of the uprising well at the end of his piece in Foreign Policy:

The Obama administration, having already thrown its weight behind the military, if not Mubarak personally, thereby facilitating the outcome just described, can be expected to redouble its already bad gamble. Fearing once again that the regime might be toppled, it will lean on the Europeans, the Saudis, and others to come to Egypt’s aid. The final nail will be driven into the coffin of the failed democratic transition in Egypt. It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist. The historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe, and even Israel could do business will have been lost, maybe forever. Uncle Sam will have to eat yet more humble pie, served up by the dictator who has just been insulting him.

Photo from Spook Terror

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