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Opinion

Protests in Egypt: the real reason for Obama's two-handed game

Commentators have castigated the Obama administration for not demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the institution of democratic elections. Yet this 'passivity' may not be a function of support for Mubarak’s dictatorship but rather a desire to retain the Egyptian military as a reliable partner throughout rapidly changing political circumstances.

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Egypt’s socioeconomic problems will probably destabilize politics well into the future. President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party built its coalition of support on two opposing yet interdependent legs. The first was a Nasser-era legacy of public-sector employees in the civil service and state-owned enterprises, many of whom lack the skills for successful reallocation to private sector jobs. The second is a pro-economic reform coalition of businessmen, financiers, and technocrats that came to occupy major economic portfolios after the inception of the government led by now-dismissed Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif in 2004. These powerful families became wealthy on partial economic reforms, especially trade and financial sector liberalization, which bankrupted the rest of the Egyptian population. Yet as the lion’s share of taxable income, this group is indispensable to paying the Egyptian government’s massive salary and social-welfare commitments. It is telling that during Friday’s Internet blackout, the only servers to remain online were those of the Noor Group, which services Egypt’s stock exchange.

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There are also several things that are unlikely to occur, at least in the short term.

Egypt is unlikely to undergo a popular revolution. The late American political scientist Samuel Huntington defined revolution as a “rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies.” As such, revolutions are distinct from coups, rebellions, or any other conflict that results in only superficial changes (despite the popularization of the term “Jasmine Revolution,” recent events in Tunisia do not yet technically constitute one).

As in Tunisia, Egypt’s potential for revolution is hindered by a lack of organized opposition that can move beyond destabilizing the incumbent leadership to either seize control outright or bargain for concessions. Egyptian protesters are individuals united around myriad issues including economics, police brutality, and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most potent opposition, is internally fragmented among introverted conservatives and politicking pragmatists. On Sunday, opposition groups including the Brotherhood united in their demands for a transition government under Mohammed El Baradei. El Baradei, who lacks his own social base, is unlikely to get anywhere without the consent of the military, which could provide the opposition with some organization, guidance, and access to the state. Yet the military has not yet signaled that it will abandon Mubarak, and division among officers seems unlikely given the military’s existence as a cohesive, parallel society forged through the same training, clubs, and activities.

The Obama administration is unlikely to unambiguously support the protesters or call for Mubarak’s resignation – but not for the reasons that most people think. It is well known that the United States plays a two-handed game when it comes to political reform in Egypt. On the one hand, Congress and specific offices in the State Department have escalated pressure for reform. The FY 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act conditioned $100 million of economic or military aid on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s "certification" that Egypt had taken “concrete and measurable steps” to promote the independence of the judiciary, curb police abuses, and clean up smuggling networks on the border between Egypt and Gaza. The outgoing Bush administration unilaterally reduced Egypt’s economic aid from $455 to $200 million, allegedly retribution for the regime’s refusal to release jailed opposition figure Ayman Nour. This reduction has been upheld under Obama. Last week, the Obama administration said it would be “reviewing” aid based on the government’s response to demonstrations.

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