Friday, 28 January 2011

Mubarak pulls a Ben Pahlavi?

Update: Al Jazeera reporting on Saturday morning that at least 23 people have been killed in Alexandria and 15 people in Suez, and another correspondent saw 15 bodies with bullet wounds in one Cairo morgue alone. Unfortunately it's a bloodbath after all.

Obviously the Egyptian regime is in massive, massive trouble. I've been watching pundits on Al Jazeera predict all day that Mubarak is finished. The burning of the ruling party headquarters makes it look particularly screwed.

All of that said, regional governments have survived significantly worse unrest. Possibly three million people took to the streets of Tehran  in 2009 (vastly more than Egypt, on both an absolute and per capita basis), and around 500 people died in riots in Algeria in 1988; in both cases the government survived. Numerous regimes saw out enormous bread riots in the 1960s and 1970s.

Furthermore I thought until a few hours ago that the Egyptian regime was largely doing - from its own point of view - the smart thing if it wanted to stay in power. It seemed to be avoiding the mistakes of Ben Ali, who as a few commentators have pointed out looked in turn to be doing his best to emulate the mistakes of the Shah of Iran in 1979 - in particular enraging people by killing large numbers of protestors early on, and then going into full retreat mode, encouraging demonstrators with each successive concession. The Egyptians on the other hand appeared to be both trying to avoid a bloodbath (using brutal but mostly non-lethal force like tear gas to break up protests, though putting the army on the streets will makeit harder to avoid massacres) while standing firm and dismissing opposition demands.

When Mubarak went on TV an hour or so ago, at first I was more confident still that he had a shot at seeing this through, especially as the delays in his appearance had been sparking growing rumours that he'd already fled. He didn't look a picture of health, to be sure (except maybe for a vampire), but for an 82 year-old supposedly suffering from cancer and facing a potential imminent Ceaucasecu moment, just weeks after his pro-Western anti-Islamist tourist-dependent oil-poor homologue a few hundred miles away had to flee in panic, I thought he seemed remarkably composed and confident.

But as his speech went on, he sounded increasingly like he'd be racking up the frequent flier miles in the very near future. Some of his words sounded very like, if not identical to, the "I have heard the voice of your revolution" statements that Ben Ali and Pahlavi came out with shortly before they also felt its kick in the goolies. More importantly, firing the government hit the mega-jackpot of looking both desperate and out of touch at the same time; noone really cares about the cabinet, but sacking it will only embolden demonstrators.

So is Mubarak toast? I'm still not entirely sure (and of course we'll know soon enough, but futurology can be fun). It will depend on things like how much he's prepared himself and the likes of the security forces leaders for this kind of thing, and whether or not they panic in the face of events. A military commander gave a TV interview that suggested the military remained behind the regime. Simply being united and prepared to wait things out goes a long way - protests can't go on for ever, as Iran in 2009 showed. Mubarak didn't look quite as desperate as Ben Ali (yet) - he didn't promise to step down soon or call early elections. But he looks a lot more like seeing out his days as a tax exile than he did just a few hours ago.

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