Obama’s Transitional Strategy: Suleiman’s My Man

February 4, 2011

It is becoming clearer that the Obama administration is attempting to cynically “manage” the politics of Egypt’s uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak. Reportedly, they have now swung heavily behind the insertion of newly enthroned vice-dictator Omar Suleiman (Mubarak’s long-serving head of intelligence and go-to man for the torturing of rendered terrorism suspects) as “transitional” leader with strong military backing.

As protesters have managed to hold Tahrir Square against attacks from government sponsored thugs, so Washington has ditched earlier plans for Mubarak to stand down later this year. Now, the plan is for the military to sustain a transitional regime, which may include elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, until a permanent settlement can be arranged.

The elevation of Suleiman is no victory for the protesters. In a televised interview given yesterday, he referred to Mubarak as a father figure, blamed pro-democracy protesters for the violence and spoke about foreign conspiracies fomented by the press, giving a green light to further attacks on journalists. As he put it, “I blame certain friendly states who are hosting unfriendly TV stations who charge the youth against the state” while he went onto suggest that the protesters wee advocating “chaos” with their demands for immediate change, which he suggested was alient to “Egyptian culture.”

In another interview, Suleiman also defended pro-Mubarak gangs who have killed at least 13 people, and driven police vehicles through crowds of unarmed demonstrators, claiming that “The pro-Mubarak group behaved very well” and protesting his ignorance about how the gangs had come to target the crowds in Tahrir Square.

This is certainly not a man who Egyptians can trust to deliver democratic change. In reality, Suleiman represents the wholesale retention of the cronyism, militarism and subservience to American diktats that has characterised the Mubarak years – which is why Obama seems so keen to retain him.

None of this management has deterred thousands of people from heading to Tahrir Square today for what is being dubbed “departure Friday.” Checkpoints are up, with all being checked for police IDs while today many have come dressed in construction helmets, a reference to the stones and molotov cocktails rained upon their heads for the past few nights.

But in the morning, army personnel removed the makeshift barricades erected by protesters in order to block attacks from outside the square (including cavalry charges) raising fears that the army planned to stand by again as pro-government militiamen gathered. Those militia have reportedly been deployed on roads outside central Cairo, preventing protesters from entering the city to join the crowds, yet may appear later as the demonstration grows. Others have accused the army and police of working together to prevent entry to the square overnight. As Shaaban Mindawy put it, “The army was confiscating food and medical supplies that people were trying to bring inside. The officers were telling people that thugs may attack them and take their money.”

The situation is tense. Much depends upon how many people can be mobilized today, and how the authorities respond. If they use violence, and the protests flare, rather than dying down, then the “transitional” strategy may be in tatters, and Egyptian democracy may rise from its fragments.



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