Yesterday I said that Egypt was entering a third phase of political turmoil. A couple of observers are already framing this phase as a contest between the military-dominated Mubarak regime and its opponents in the streets. One commentator even thinks that the military has already won the game, but I hope that's wrong.
In a report issued today, the International Crisis Group, a worldwide NGO focused on diplomatic solutions, points out that many people are worried about a breakdown of law and order in Egypt, and are content to leave Mubarak in office until his term expires in September. As the report puts it,
The authorities, so far, have not suggested any willingness to concede on this point and have conditioned negotiations on an end to the protests. At the same time, the opposition refuses to enter any talks until the president goes and the violence against them stops; in this light, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Egypt’s peaceful transition while he remains in office. Overcoming this obstacle will be difficult and could well require flexibility on both sides.In other words, we are currently in the midst of a standoff in a two-actor game (akin to a game of Chicken) or a simple negotiating dilemma: the first one to blink or veer away from the collision loses the game.
Both sides have dug in: the regime insists that everyone go home and then they will talk to the opposition. The opposition (assuming it's united) insists that Mubarak leave office and his gangs stop attacking them, and then they will engage in talks (possibly with the current vice president, possibly not). They've reached a stalemate. Will anything break it?
In a post for Foreign Policy today, Robert Springborg, a longtime Egypt expert, pessimistically contends that Mubarak's military allies have already gotten the upper hand on the pro-democracy forces. Fomenting chaos first by unleashing the secret police to loot neighborhoods and attack protestors, the regime could contend that only the military could preserve law and order. With a new vice president and prime minister tied to the military, Springborg envisions a military-dominated regime for some time to come.
I agree that the opposition has been divided thus far, and that Mubarak's supporters have played a tricky strategy, but I disagree that they will necessarily succeed. With a more open media environment, the regime's cynical strategy has been clear to many Egyptians. They may have grown tired of such games.
I'm not sure this crisis is over yet. Enough popular energy has been unleashed that we can imagine more protests tomorrow after Friday's midday Islamic prayers. Tune in to al-Jazeera tomorrow morning to see who's right.