Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Give me liberty or give me death" By Pepe Escobar

I have announced I will stay with this post
and that I will continue to shoulder my responsibilities.
- President Hosni Mubarak

We'll go to the palace and tear him out.
- Chant in Tahrir Square

What's a revolution to do when it expected a decrepit dictator to pack up and go, live on al-Jazeera? Especially when a few hours earlier the expectation was of a military coup?

"Go back home"? Forget it.

Eerie Pharaoh Mubarak is indeed an immovable ancient statue buried in the desert sands. "I have laid down a clear vision"? Reforms will be "implemented by our armed forces"? Article 179 - the basis for emergency law - will be amended, maybe one day? Vague powers granted to Vice President Omar "Sheikh al-Torture" Suleiman?

(Octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak's deliberate vague language meant anything from "delegating power" - not all power - to "delegating the authorities" of the president, to the point that the Egyptian ambassador to the United States had to call CNN to explain that he is now a "de jure" president, Suleiman being "de facto". Translation: he's become an official ghost. A figurehead. Or maybe not.)

Compared to what the military dictatorship (Suleiman, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and army chief Lieutenant General Sami Annan) had been spinning all along this Thursday, none of that made sense.

Then came "Sheikh al-Torture", as sinister as a B-actor playing Nosferatu. It's as if Sheikh al-Torture was announcing that from now on all the excruciating practices under his supervision would be orderly transitioned towards a more democratic approach. We have "opened the door to dialogue"? "Don't listen" to the "sedition" of "satellite television stations"? "Go back home"? The same it's-us-or-chaos rant? Sheikh al-Torture at least remained in character. After all he had already threatened to unleash "dark bats of the night ... to terrorize the people". The street knows he's itching to go Medieval.

The regime as a whole had threatened the army could crack down big time by imposing martial law. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit had told al-Arabiyya if "we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation through imposing martial law, and army in the streets".

The Muslim Brotherhood's Essam al-Erian feared the army was about to stage a coup. The New York Times, in another characteristic amnesia attack, stressed, "The military intends to take a leading role" (modern Egypt has always been a military dictatorship).

For all the Nile of expectations, the street was not exactly sure whether they should prepare for a big party or a bloodbath. In the end, none happened.

The Egyptian High Command - crucially without Mubarak and Suleiman - had issued a bayan raqm wahad ("statement number one", in Arabic), which in the Arab world is standard code language for a military coup. The statement took pains to advertise its "support of the legitimate demands of the people". That's their idea for a new bright future for Egypt (median age: 24 years old); a lousy communique.

Yet part of the street even considered an "interim coup" better than having an interim Sheikh-al-Torture. They had already made it plain they will not tolerate a Sheikh al-Torture-led interim government - aka face-lifted Mubakarism.

In the end Mubarak himself announced that Sheikh al-Torture was taking over - or maybe not. So for the street there's no turning back. The stage is set for a regime-directed framework of "negotiations". The street knows Suleiman will manipulate this as the perfect cover to force his facelift and perpetuate the regime. Bye bye democracy. After all, Sheikh al-Torture himself has said Egypt is not ready for democracy.

Is the army cracking up?
Before the Mubarak/Suleiman state TV double bill, the hottest rumor in Cairo was that Washington was pulling no punches to have Mubarak transfer his powers - all of them - to Suleiman. Annan and a majority of senior officers were against it, but air force commanders and the top of the Republican Guard were in favor. Tantawi was sitting on the fence. The inside dope was that Annan would win.

He didn't. Will the army secede? Immediately after Mubarak's speech, people in Cairo started receiving text messages from the Egyptian High Command, saying that it is "monitoring" everything and will "decide how to act" - that's as ambiguous as it gets. Takes time to come up with communique number two.

All evidence seems to point to a serious palace civil war going on in Cairo. Perhaps a double split; inside the military dictatorship (the army against military intelligence), plus the army against Mubarak. That may turn bloody at any moment. The army simply cannot go on playing a double game and sitting on the fence. The street is left with the strategy of applying overwhelming pressure on army commanders and conscripts alike to force them to align with democracy.

Meanwhile, the top narrative in Washington is that the White House was once more horribly humiliated by a satrap; precedents, as we have already pointed out, exist, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Pakistani leadership. But considering the ultra high stakes, Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh more or less are getting what they want, as in their horse in charge of an "orderly transition".

They get Sheikh al-Torture as the new de facto rais; Mubarak as a ghost, or figurehead, or invisible master-puppeteer; and the army theoretically backing the new strongman. The only thing missing is the people. It's interesting that al-Arabiyya - which is essentially a House of Saud mouthpiece - was absolutely spot on about Mubarak's speech, at least one hour before the broadcast, while everyone else, White House and the US Central Intelligence Agency included, was sure he would step down.

On a parallel level, the closest US President Barack Obama has gone so far to unequivocally endorse people power, sort of, is this meek line in his statement post-Mubarak/Suleiman fiasco, which reads, "those who have exercised their right to peaceful assembly ... are broadly representative of Egyptian society". Mr President, the Egyptian street is watching you.

The larger-than-life ball is now in the Egyptian street's court. The fight now is to force the complete dismantling of the Egyptian police state. In the words of many a Tahrir Square protester; "Give me liberty or give me death." Egypt may burn because the regime is betting on it. So what's a revolution to do? Storm the Bastille or go on with endless passive resistance? Either way, the time for freedom or death is now.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at