Arab Affairs: Egypt’s rigidity

Under pressure from the US and EU to implement reforms, Mubarak has steadfastly held onto his presidency.

Suleiman with Opposition 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Suleiman with Opposition 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Nothing is settled yet in Egypt. Two weeks of violent demonstrations throughout the country have not toppled the government headed by President Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, the demonstrations show no sign of abating.
The opposition is divided and some of its delegates have started a dialogue with the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, with a view to getting as many concessions as they can, among them a constitutional reform which would make democratic elections possible and pave the way for a smooth regime change.

Though there were two representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood at the talks, the movement insisted they had just come to listen and that what had been agreed was not acceptable since it did not answer the demands of the protesters, first and foremost the departure of Mubarak. A few days later, another communiqué attempted to assuage the fears of many in Egypt and around the world. The Brotherhood, it said, would not present a candidate for the presidency and would not take part in the transition government or in one which might be formed following the dialogue with the opposition. The Brotherhood seems to be weighing its steps very carefully so as not to frighten the public while quietly preparing to seize the occasion at the right moment.
WHILE THE talks are continuing and their outcome is still uncertain, the government is making an all-out effort to restore normalcy.
Banks have reopened and citizens were instructed to go to the post office to get their national insurance payments. Shops opened and the government saw to it that thousands of tons of food and staples were made available. A first sum of 5 billion Egyptian pounds was allocated to pay compensation to the victims of the riots.
Complete freedom of speech was granted to the media and even state television now reports honestly what is happening in Tahrir Square and broadcasts interviews with opposition figures.
This being said, the opposition is still deeply divided. A hard core of protesters, mostly young and encouraged by the Muslim Brotherhood, clamor for the resignation of Mubarak and his departure from the country. They are continuously recruiting more people and are demonstrating near the government buildings and parliament – with the army watching and doing nothing. The protestors assert that they will not desist until their demand is met and Mubarak is gone.
TALKS BETWEEN government and opposition groups do not always go smoothly. Among the burning issues is the dissolution of the recently elected parliament (due to massive fraud), a sweeping demand to eliminate the extensive prerogatives of the presidency and for effective human rights and freedom of expression. There are some murmurings of setting up a temporary “national unity government,” which would include opposition representatives until the September presidential elections.
Suleiman, as chief negotiator, says that the country’s institutions are based on the constitution and the rule of law, and they must not be circumvented. Changes must be according to the laws. Therefore, only Mubarak can appoint the committee, which will discuss amending the constitution, and only Mubarak can ratify the changes.
Suleiman said that dissolving parliament is not constitutionally feasible but accusations of fraud will be thoroughly investigated and by-elections held on a case-bycase basis. Parliament is the proper forum for voting on the changes in the constitution; therefore it is imperative to allow its continued function and to protect it.
Suleiman is taking a very active part in all these moves. He is very sure of himself and, with utmost competence, deals with difficult situations. Early this week, he held a press conference, which included opposition and independent media, and said the government had not fallen and would not fall and that Mubarak would remain in place because removing him would shame all Egyptians.
The choice, he said, was between restoring calm and revolution – meaning an army takeover or chaos.
Intense pressure has been placed on him by the US and the European Union which want quick reforms. Suleiman has already turned down a German proposal to have Mubarak go to Baden Baden, Germany to undergo medical tests. His excuse was that the president was feeling quite well and had no intention of leaving Egypt. He added that the proposal was nothing less than unwelcome interference in internal affairs.
ON THE other hand, Suleiman refrained from commenting on President Barack Obama’s frequent policy changes – which first demanded Mubarak’s immediate departure, then requested a smooth transfer of power without mentioning departure. Obama also requested the Muslim Brotherhood’s inclusion in any talks.
As of this moment, it is difficult to understand exactly what US policy is, since it hastened to abandon its most important ally in the Arab world for the past 30 years. By doing so, it severely damaged its credibility in the region, including among such traditional allies as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Yemen and Morocco, all of which are having second thoughts about the “assistance” they might receive from America should the need arise.
At this stage, the revolution is still raging, but appears to have reached a stalemate. The government is busy reasserting its authority and there is an all-out effort to return to normal. There are ongoing talks with part of the opposition. However, protesters are still on the streets and have sworn not to give up until Mubarak is gone. At any moment, protests could turn ugly again. The fate of the revolution is still unclear.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other radical elements in the region – Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and even al-Qaida – are waiting in the wings. They may already have started subversive activities to push for anarchy and the fall of the government. No one knows what the future holds. No one can remain indifferent to what is happening in Egypt - certainly not Israel, which has legitimate concerns about the fate of the peace treaty and fears for the fragile equilibrium of the region.
The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.