While much of American media has termed the events unfolding in Egypt today as "clashes between pro-government and opposition groups," this is not in fact what's happening on the street. The so-called "pro-government" forces are actually Mubarak's cleverly orchestrated goon squads dressed up as pro-Mubarak demonstrators to attack the protesters in Midan Tahrir, with the Army appearing to be a neutral force. The opposition, largely cognizant of the dirty game being played against it, nevertheless has had little choice but to call for protection against the regime's thugs by the regime itself, i.e., the military. And so Mubarak begins to show us just how clever and experienced he truly is. The game is, thus, more or less over.
The threat to the military's control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Millions of demonstrators in the street have not broken the chain of command over which President Mubarak presides. Paradoxically the popular uprising has even ensured that the presidential succession will not only be engineered by the military, but that an officer will succeed Mubarak. The only possible civilian candidate, Gamal Mubarak, has been chased into exile, thereby clearing the path for the new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman. The military high command, which under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system, can now breathe much more easily than a few days ago. It can neutralize any further political pressure from below by organizing Hosni Mubarak's exile, but that may well be unnecessary.
The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration. They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy. When it became clear last week that the Ministry of Interior's crowd-control forces were adding to rather than containing the popular upsurge, they were suddenly and mysteriously removed from the street. Simultaneously, by releasing a symbolic few prisoners from jail; by having plainclothes Ministry of Interior thugs engage in some vandalism and looting (probably including that in the Egyptian National Museum); and by extensively portraying on government television an alleged widespread breakdown of law and order, the regime cleverly elicited the population's desire for security. While some of that desire was filled by vigilante action, it remained clear that the military was looked to as the real protector of personal security and the nation as a whole. Army units in the streets were under clear orders to show their sympathy with the people.
In the meantime the regime used the opportunity to place the military in more direct control of the government while projecting an image of business as usual. In addition to securing the presidential succession to Gen. Omar Suleiman, retired general and presidential confidant Ahmed Shafiq was sworn in as prime minister, along with a new cabinet, in all due televised pomp and ceremony. Gamal's unpopular crony businessmen supporters were jettisoned from the cabinet, with their replacements being political nonentities. Mubarak himself pledged that the new government would focus on providing material security to the people.
The stage was thus set for the regime to counterattack the opposition through a combination of divide-and-rule tactics, political jujitsu, and crude application of force. The pledge by Mubarak not to offer his candidacy, the implied succession to Suleiman rather than Gamal, the commitment to revising constitutional provisions that govern the presidential election, and the decision to suspend parliamentary sessions until courts have ruled on contested candidacies from the November election succeeded in convincing some opposition elements that they had gained enough to call it a victory and go home.
As for those elements, including the coalition formed around Mohamed elBaradei, that deemed these concessions to be insufficient sops intended to preserve the status quo, the regime offered further provocations. Mubarak described them as opportunists and called their patriotism into question, implying that they were stooges of the United States and that he was defending the nation's independence and dignity. This was classic political jujitsu, for the enraged crowd now redoubled its efforts and demands, using much more insulting language to describe Mubarak himself. This in turn paved the way for the regime to unleash its goon squads to attack protesters.
The military will now enter into negotiations with opposition elements that it chooses. The real opposition will initially be ignored, and then possibly rounded up. The regime will do all possible to restore a sense of business as usual. Cell phone and Internet connections have already been re-established, and automatic teller machines are functioning, though banks remain closed so there can be no run on them. Businesses will be encouraged to reopen, and all possible will be done to ensure a flow of essential supplies into Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez.
The last challenge remaining is economic. Even before demonstrations broke out a few weeks ago, the economy was just limping along. It is now broken. Even in the best-case scenario of a rapid return to stability, Egypt faces a cash crunch. Capital flight, loss of foreign direct investment, drying up of tourist revenues, downgrading of sovereign debt and commensurate increase in interest, and lost earnings from interrupted production will all hammer the revenue side of the balance sheet. The expenditure side will be placed under yet more stress by acceleration of inflation already running at 10 percent, devaluation of the currency, and need to repair damage resulting from the clashes. Egypt will have to turn to its "friends" if it is to avert economic disaster and if the regime that just narrowly survived defeat is not to be challenged yet again.
The Obama administration, having already thrown its weight behind the military, if not Mubarak personally, thereby facilitating the outcome just described, can be expected to redouble its already bad gamble. Fearing once again that the regime might be toppled, it will lean on the Europeans, the Saudis, and others to come to Egypt's aid. The final nail will be driven into the coffin of the failed democratic transition in Egypt. It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist. The historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe, and even Israel could do business will have been lost, maybe forever. Uncle Sam will have to eat yet more humble pie, served up by the dictator who has just been insulting him.
Robert Springborg is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.