Sunday, January 30, 2011

Shield or Sword?

It is still unclear to me why the Egyptian government pulled back their police. It was way too soon, I assume, for the police to waver in their loyalty. They're used to this. It is almost as if the army--more trusted by the angry people--are being used to shield the government by holding a perimeter that preserves the government and gives the people limited room and time to protest, and perhaps dissipate their intensity of anger. Once the opposition shows signs of splintering and less committed protesters begin to worry about the chaos itself as worse than the Mubarak regime, the police would have more leeway to start a counter-attack to reclaim the public streets. But the army has to remain as a shield for that to work. If the army can't hold together and hold the line, it will become a sword that pierces the heart of the government. And what emerges after that is anybody's guess.

The most committed protesters want Mubarak gone and don't care about the consequences. But a lot of Egyptians don't feel that way. Yes, they want Mubarak gone, but they may fear what could happen if the radicals win. These more moderate protesters may believe that a reformed, Mubarak-less government dominated by the more trusted military is good enough.

Right now, the government is holding and the army is intact. Talks within the Egyptian establishment are taking place that may result in a new government that is good enough for enough people to make the threat of radical revolution wane:

President Hosni Mubarak, clinging to power despite unprecedented demands for an end to his 30-year rule, met on Sunday with the powerful military which is widely seen as holding the key to Egypt's future.

Mubarak held talks with Vice President Omar Suleiman, whose appointment on Saturday has possibly set the scene for a transition in power, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami al-Anan and other senior commanders.

An earthquake of unrest is shaking Mubarak's authoritarian grip on power and the high command's support is vital as other pillars of his ruling apparatus crumble, analysts said.

Egyptians faced lawlessness on their streets on Sunday with security forces and ordinary people trying to stop looters after five days of popular protest.

People hate the government as it is, but fear chaos. Can the government walk that tightrope and survive in some form?

If we're lucky, they can. I worry about the worst even though I can hope that the uprising leads to real chances for freedom for Egyptians. But if we do get that lucky, we need to take this crisis to heart, realize we dodged a bullet, and push Egypt for real reforms that lead to real democracy and rule of law, and which combat the corruption that fuels popular anger. That could lead to a better life for Egyptians and remove the possibility that Iran can exploit this crisis.

UPDATE: The police are starting to reappear and the air force made a show of force over Cairo:

Minutes before the start of a 4 p.m. curfew, at least two jets made multiple passes over downtown, including a central square where thousands of Egyptians were calling for the departure of President Hosni Mubarak.

Police could be seen returning to some streets nearly two days after they virtually disappeared, creating a security vacuum only partially filled by the presence of army troops backed by tanks at key sites around this city of 18 million people.

Have deals been made? Are the protests running out of steam?