Hosni and me

Anyone who thinks Cairo’s calls for freedom will lead to rapid democratization is dangerously naive.

Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
"You Americans always want quick solutions,” Hosni Mubarak once told me during an interview in Cairo. “But in this part of the world there are no quick solutions; only accommodations.”
Mubarak’s words ring as true today as they did when he uttered them nearly 20 years ago.
Tahrir Square’s heroic and dramatic demands for democratic change have resounded around the world.
But anyone who thinks Cairo’s calls for freedom will lead to rapid democratization is dangerously naive.
For starters, Egypt’s military has controlled the nation for more than 60 years – long before Mubarak. And outside of his own authoritarian circle, there are no political leaders capable of taking the helm immediately.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the nuclear diplomat touted as a successor, says he doesn’t want the job. Amr Moussa, the self-promoting head of the Arab League, is available, but is known more for bluster than democratic acumen.
In fact, there are no opposition political leaders strong enough to unite the nation and win the support of the all-powerful million-man Egyptian army. Indeed, with the exception of the antidemocratic Muslim Brotherhood (and who in their right mind wants them leading?), there is not one political party with an apparatus capable of controlling a truly democratic government.
THE HARSH historic fact is that during its 5,000 of years of existence, Egypt has never known anything close to democracy. In our own time, the Arab world’s most important nation moved from a ridiculously corrupt kingdom ruled by a perverse monarch to a military dictatorship led by a series of heavy-handed army officers – none of whom brooked opposition.
Nor, for that matter, is there evidence of real democracy anywhere else in the Mideast’s Muslim world. Iran’s Islamofascist “republic” brutally crushes anyone who dares seek democratic reform. Syria has remained clenched in the fist of the same dictatorial family for 40 years – a clan that has not hesitated to use the army to murder tens of thousands of its own people. Jordan’s smiling king and beautiful queen enjoy some degree of popularity, but neither they nor the security service the king controls are prepared to yield any real democratic power. The West Bank’s Palestinian Authority and Gaza’s Hamas are hardly renowned for political freedom.
Gaddafi’s Libya? Algeria? Yemen? Sudan? Lebanon? Even newly “liberated” Tunisia is still in dangerous flux.
What are Egypt’s chances now for positive “accommodation”? The best hope lies in what has already happened: a transfer of presidential power from Mubarak to a trio consisting of his Vice President Omar Suleiman, Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi and retired Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, the newly appointed prime minister. These are the men who seem to be calling the shots - which this weekend included the announcement that they had suspended the overly complicated Egyptian constitution and rubber stamp parliament, and were planning elections within six months Most important, the Suleiman-Tantawi-Shafiq trio is in the process of actively contacting some of the most important nongovernmental figures in business, letters, science and academia in an attempt to decide the wisest way forward for balance between the army and those demanding reform. Leaders of some of the 24 small but serious opposition parties have already joined in these discussions in hopes of enabling a meaningful parliamentary election in September. The government and army have offered new concessions, including freedom of the press, release of those detained since antigovernment protests began and the eventual lifting of the hated emergency laws.
AND WHAT of Hosni Mubarak? He may yet seek political exile in the emirates and launch a campaign to return to power. That seems unlikely to happen and less so to succeed. But short of that, Egypt’s current ruling military triumvirate will remain in power – and Tahrir’s mobs will be forced go home. Hopefully, Cairo’s delirious democratic celebrants will not give the Egyptian military an excuse to open fire on them. More important, Egypt’s true democrats will build political party structures and actively cooperate with the military in trying to find some semblance of freer public life for Egypt than what preceded. But be assured, the Egyptian military is not about to surrender full control of Egypt – at least not now.
The pyramids were not built in a day – or even a year.
Had they been, they would have collapsed long ago.
The writer is a prize-winning veteran of more than 40 years of global news work. He is former Jerusalem correspondent for Newsweek and executive editor of Newsweek International, senior correspondent of US News & World Report from 1985 to 2003 and is now a columnist for The NY Daily News and The Huffington Post.