Betting on the Gatopardo strategy

3 February 2011
Translator: David Brookbank

The problem facing Obama is that of constructing “Mubarakism” without Mubarak, that is, to guarantee the continuity of the pro-American autocracy through an acceptable replacement recruited from the ranks of the regime.

Last Sunday Hillary Clinton announced before the press the need to avoid at all cost a power vacuum in Egypt. She said the White House objective is an orderly transition towards democracy, social reform, economic justice; that Hosni Mubarak is the president of Egypt; and that what is important is the transition process.

Unlike what has occurred on other occasions, U.S. President Obama did not demand that the fallen leader leave in disgrace. Given that she could not do otherwise, the statements of the Secretary of State reflect the geopolitical conception maintained without deviation by the United States since the Six Day War in 1967, a conception which has grown in influence since the 1981 assassination of Anwar el-Sadat and the ascent to power of his then vice president, Hosni Mubarak.

Sadat had become a crucial element for the United States and Israel –simultaneously conferring the same status on Egypt– by becoming the first Arab head of state to recognize the state of Israel and by signing the Peace Treaty between the two nations on March 26, 1979. The doubts and resentments still harbored by Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as a result of five wars and unending peace negotiations were quickly laid aside when they as well as President Jimmy Carter were notified on January 16 of that year that a strategic pro-US ally in the region, the Shah of Iran, had been overthrown by a popular revolution and had sought refuge in Egypt. The fall of the Shah was followed by the birth of the Islam Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for whom the United States and the entire “American civilization” were nothing more than the “Great Satan”, the sworn enemy of Islam.

If the Shah’s violent removal shook up the Middle East chessboard, the news emanating from the tumultuous Central American backyard was no better: on July 19, 1979 the Frente Sandinista entered Managua and put an end to the dictatorship of the traditional US henchman in the region, Anastasio Somoza, further complicating the North American geopolitical picture. From that moment forward, US foreign policy would at all cost back Egypt as the stabilizing anchor for the ever so delicate Middle East equilibrium, despite knowing that under Mubarak’s reign corruption, narcotrafficking and money laundering grew at a pace surpassed only by the process of impoverishment and social exclusion that affected growing sectors of the Egyptian population; and that torture and fierce repression in the face of the slightest hint of dissent were an everyday affair.

This is why President Obama and his Secretary of State sounded so unbearably hypocritical and opportunistic in demanding that a corrupt, repressive regime like few in the world –which the US has maintained and financed for decades– begin to follow the path of economic, social and political reforms. A regime, furthermore, to which Washington could send prisoners to be tortured without facing troublesome legal restrictions and where the CIA station in Cairo could operate without any sort of obstacles in carrying out its “war against terrorism”. A regime, moreover, that could block internet and cellular phone communications while barely awakening even mild protest in Washington. Would the reaction have been similarly lukewarm if the perpetrator of such abuses had been Hugo Chávez?

Given that Mubarak appears to have crossed the point of no return, the problem facing Obama is that of constructing “Mubarakism” without Mubarak, that is, to guarantee the continuity of the pro-American autocracy through an acceptable replacement recruited from the ranks of the regime. As said by one of the characters in the renowned novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, in Italian) by the Sicilian writer, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, "Something must be changed if we want things to stay as they are”. That was the formula Washington attempted to impose without success in the months prior to the fall of Somoza in Nicaragua, calling on a figure within the regime, Francisco Urcuyo, president of the National Congress, whose first and practically last initiative as president during that brief moment was to ask the Sandinista Front, which was smashing Somoza’s National Guard in every corner of the country, to put down its weapons. The Sandinistas found it more expedient to depose him shortly afterwards and, in the popular Nicaraguan lexicon, the ex-president became known as “Urcuyo, the ephemeral”.

What the White House is now attempting is something similar: to pressure Mubarak into designating a vice-president in hopes of not repeating the Urcuyo fiasco. But Mubarak's choice could not have been more inappropriate given that he appointed to the job military intelligence services' chief Omar Suleiman, a hard-liner known to be even more opposed to a democratic opening than Mubarak himself and whose credentials were not exactly those sought by the masses demanding democracy. Just when these took to the streets and attacked numerous facilities of the hated police as well as the headquarters of the ruling political party and the no less despised spies, informants and state intelligence officials, Mubarak named none other than the chief of those same services to lead the democratic reforms. It was an awful joke and was received as such by the Egyptians, who continued taking to the streets convinced that Mubarak’s reign has ended and that he must go without further delay.

In the tradition of Marxist socialism, it is said that a revolutionary situation occurs when those above are unable to dominate as before and when those below no longer want to be dominated as before. In Egypt those above are unable because the police have been defeated in street battles while officers and army soldiers fraternized with protesters instead of repressing them.It would not be surprising if some other leak à la Wikileaks revealed the intense pressures by the White House on the aging despot to abandon Egypt immediately so as to avoid a replay of the tragedy of Tehran.

The alternatives available for the United States are few and unpleasant:

  1. "Gatopardism”, that is, maintaining the existing regime with some cosmetic changes and a few new faces, paying a phenomenal political cost –not just in the Arab world but also in the West and in the US– to brazenly defend its positions and privileges in this crucial region of the world, while further eroding the standard White House claim that America is the champion of democratic politics;
  2. the coming to power of a highly volatile civic-military alliance in which Mubarak’s opposition would be destined to exercise ever greater influence, fueled by the intense pressures coming from below; or
  3. the worst of nightmares, if the feared power vacuum were to finally come true, that the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood would take the government by force.

Under any of these hypotheses, things will no longer be the same for the US, given that even under the most moderate of these options the likelihood that a new regime in Egypt would continue to be an effective and unconditional peon of Washington is extremely low and, in the best of cases, would be a highly unstable arrangement.

And, if the result is Islamic radicalism, the situation in the region for the US and Israel would turn extremely vulnerable, as Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu conceded yesterday, taking into account that the domino effect of the crisis that began in Tunis and has continued in Egypt is already being felt by other important US allies, such as Jordan and Yemen, all of which could worsen even further the extent of the US military defeat in Iraq and precipitate a debacle in Afghanistan. Were these predictions to occur, the Palestine-Israel conflict would acquire unprecedented resonance, the echoes of which would reach the lavish palaces of the Gulf emirates and to Saudi Arabia itself, changing dramatically and forever the chessboard of world politics and the international economy.

About the authors

Atilio Boron

Atilio Boron is Director of the Latin American Programme of Distance Education in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a collaborator of TNI's New Politics project. He is also ex-Secretary General of CLACSO – an academic umbrella body for Latin America.

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