The Unlikely Triumph of Hope

Life would be impossible without predictive abilities. You do have to have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next – if you do this one thing then that other one thing is sure to happen. The hot stove metaphor works as well as any other – you don’t put your hand on a hot stove. Once burned twice shy, or something like that. You know better. Yes, sometimes it doesn’t matter if you know better – as Samuel Johnson said, for a man to marry a second time represents the triumph of hope over experience. But most of the time you do know better. There’s hope and then there are the hard lessons of actual experience. Or as George Bush put it – “There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

Close enough – folks knew what he meant. So, hope is or suckers, and trust, but verify.

But we all know it’s not all reaction. Most of the time you don’t use your personal array of painful or shameful or embarrassing experiences, nor do you think about the painful or shameful or embarrassing experiences of others. You don’t have to. You use logic – you don’t spit in the wind, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and so on. Experience is a great teacher, but luckily logic and imagination are too. You don’t have to touch the hot stove in the first place.

But logic can fail you. Everyone knew the 2008 presidential race was going to be Hillary Clinton going up against Rudy Giuliani – the Clinton machine was awesome, she had all the party bigwigs in her back pocket, and she had Bill. And Giuliani was America’s Mayor and the hero of 9/11 and as nasty as he was smart. Of course no one quite knew what he did on 9/11 that made him a hero, but he had been there. And Obama was obscure and McCain distrusted by almost the entire Republican establishment. It was easy to predict what would happen.

But it didn’t happen. What was logically inevitable, and what experience showed was sure to happen, flew out the window. And Obama ran on Hope – and it was the triumph of hope over experience. Sometimes that happens.

But it doesn’t happen that often. And that’s why, at the end of the tenth day of the uprising in Egypt, no one knew whether we were watching an amazing revolution, the people of Egypt rising up and tossing out a dictator of sorts, and reclaiming their country, or watching one more futile spasm collective anger that would mean nothing in a few weeks. It was hope versus experience.

And friend in upstate New York sent this:

I reminded my daughter late last night that we’re watching the equivalent of the French or Russian Revolutions – actually I think immediately of 1917 Moscow and Warren Beatty’s brilliant movie Reds – American Journalist Anderson Cooper… er, John Reed – fighting to be in the middle of history… only who can only guess what the Muslim Middle Eastern version of “people’s revolution” will look like on the other side of tomorrow…

No one knew, and this was the reply from here in Hollywood:

As for Egypt – that’s over. Beat the crap out of the journalists, and arrest the rest of them. Shut down coverage. Keep your goon squads doing what they do – soon no one will know what is happening. By Saturday morning it will be a done deal. And no one will have seen a thing.

It works every time. No one knows what happened in China in the days after Tiananmen Square. China expelled the international media. There was no revolution in China.

It’s the same thing. Mubarak stays.

One might look at things logically. On Thursday, February 3, Christiane Amanpour snagged an exclusive interview with President Hosni Mubarak – Mubarak said that he was “fed up” with being president but that he could not step down for fear of sowing chaos in the country. He’d love to walk away, but Egyptians were kind of sort of begging him to stay. No one likes chaos. And he’d be irresponsible if he left now. He can’t let his country down.

And on Fox News, Shepard Smith asked us all a question – Remember Baghdad Bob? Things were not looking good.

Of course the Washington Post proudly noted that the Senate passed a resolution calling on Mr. Mubarak to begin the transfer of power to an “inclusive, interim caretaker government.”

Bully for them. See Michael O’Brien at The Hill with the rundown on Mubarak telling the word that Obama doesn’t understand Egypt, and Obama certainly doesn’t understand Egyptian culture in the slightest. The Senate resolution too was American politicians posturing for Americans.

But late in the day Helene Cooper and Mark Landler in the New York Times reported this:

The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

The proposal also calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country’s electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September, the officials said.

But senior administration officials also said that the proposal was one of several options under discussion – they’re talking with high-level Egyptian officials around Mubarak – a once-removed effort to persuade Mubarak to step down now.

And there are problems:

“What they’re asking cannot be done,” one senior Egyptian official said, citing clauses in the Egyptian Constitution that bar the vice president from assuming power. Under the Constitution, the speaker of Parliament would succeed the president. “That’s my technical answer,” the official added. “My political answer is they should mind their own business.”

And there was this:

During a Senate hearing on Thursday, both Democrats and Republicans pressed a senior Central Intelligence Agency official about when the CIA and other agencies notified President Obama of the looming crisis, and whether intelligence officers even monitored social networking sites and Internet forums to gauge popular sentiment in Egypt.

“At some point it had to have been obvious that there was going to be a huge demonstration,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.

She said that intelligence agencies never sent a notice to her committee about the growing uprising in Egypt, as is customary in the case of significant global events.

Stephanie O’Sullivan, the CIA official, responded that the agency had been tracking instability in Egypt for some time and had concluded that the government in Cairo was in an “untenable” situation. But, Ms. O’Sullivan said, “We didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be.”

Perhaps they were operating on hope that maybe things wouldn’t blow up right away. But now it’s our high-level officials talking to their high-level officials, behind Mubarak’s back. And that sort of thing gets tricky:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke by phone to Mr. Suleiman on Thursday, the White House said in a statement, urging that “credible, inclusive negotiations begin immediately in order for Egypt to transition to a democratic government that addresses the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

Mr. Biden’s phone call came after a mission by Mr. Obama’s private emissary, Frank G. Wisner, was abruptly ended when Mr. Mubarak, angry at Mr. Obama’s toughly worded speech on Tuesday night, declined to meet with the envoy a second time, officials said.

And it’s also tricky on this end:

Officials familiar with the dialogue between the Obama administration and Cairo say that American officials have told their Egyptian counterparts that if they support another strongman to replace Mr. Mubarak – but without a specific plan and timetable for moving toward democratic elections – Congress might react by freezing military aid to Egypt.

But it may do:

Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that a transition government led by Mr. Suleiman and the military, with pledges to move toward democratic elections, was in his mind “the most probable case.”

But he said the administration had to proceed with extreme caution – it seems hope is not a good policy now, if it ever was good policy.

And meanwhile, in streets, ABC News Reporter Brian Hartman Threatened With Beheading – “A group of angry Egyptian men carjacked an ABC News crew and threatened to behead them today in the latest and most menacing attack on foreign reporters trying to cover the anti-government uprising.”

And this – TIME Exclusive: CBS’s Lara Logan and Crew Detained in Cairo As Violence Escalates – “Sources have told TIME Magazine that Lara Logan, chief foreign affairs correspondent for CBS News, has been detained along with her crew by Egyptian police outside Cairo’s Israeli embassy.”

And Fox News Greg Palkot Olaf Wiig Severely Beaten in Cairo (in the hospital and in bad shape) and American Anderson Cooper Attacked by Pro-Mubarak Egyptian Mobs (now reporting from an undisclosed location). And see Graeme Wood, The Atlantic Online, Why I Was Dragged through the Street by an Egyptian Mob – “As the regime plays up the supposed role of ‘foreign agendas’ behind the protests, Mubarak supporters’ attacks become more indiscriminate….”

ABC News compiled a list of all the journalists who have been in some way threatened, attacked or detained while reporting in Egypt – “When you put it all into one list, it is a rather large number in such a short period of time.” And see Josh Halliday in the Guardian – Egypt protests: BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera Journalists Attacked. And this is curious – Rush Limbaugh jokes about the detention of New York Times journalists, as that makes him smile, until he learns about the Fox News guy near death in an Egyptian hospital. Then Rush is confused.

As for the White House – Gibbs: Targeting of Journalists in Egypt “Totally Unacceptable” – and that’s kind of like the Senate resolution. And Scott Lucas summarizes here an interview with our best hope, Mubarak’s new vice president:

1636 GMT: The Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on Al-Musriyya state TV and during an interview said that the demands of the youth of the January 25 movement were legitimate and acceptable and that they have been examined. However, he blamed foreign operatives with their own agendas whose objective was to create instability, intimidation and rift between Egyptians.

Anyone can see how this is playing out. Robert Springborg in Foreign Policy certainly does:

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.

Springborg is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, and he sees a master at work:

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.

It was all very clever:

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 the rest, there’s this:

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.

There’s much more, but it comes down to this:

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.

Ah, but we can hope. But hope is, of course, for suckers. On the other hand, Rudy Giuliani is not the present. One never knows.

And late in the evening of Thursday, February 3, 2011, this hasn’t played out. And perhaps this will go better than that second marriage did – but that’s a personal matter, and Samuel Johnson isn’t always right.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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