The Tahrir Blues

Hosni Mubarak has chosen not to fold his losing hand and to play it to the bitter end.

After the CIA and the Egyptian military said he was going to resign, he didn’t, which further escalated the tension around the question hanging over Cairo: Who is the military going to side with?

Is it the bloated kleptocrat and his bloody sidekick Omar Suleiman – the inseparable ally the generals have been in bed with since the State Of Emergency was declared in 1981 — or the Egyptian citizens who refuse to leave Tahrir Square and demand a suspension of the constitution, then fair and open elections.

For the military the choice seems like whether to let go of your 300-pound mother as she’s pulling you into powerfully raging floodwaters. If you don’t let her go, she’s going to drag you into even more dangerous waters that will assure all your doom.

As a veteran of decades of anti-militarism activism in America – child’s play here compared to Tahrir Square — I feel the people in Tahrir are my brothers and sisters. Like many, I’m moved by their bravery and determination.

Always hanging over them is a relentless wet blanket, an oppressive, smothering force represented by the militarist juggernaut reaching from Washington DC, through Israel and Saudi Arabia, to the deeply funded and entrenched military class of Egypt.

Tahrir Square and Presidents Mubarak and ObamaTahrir Square and Presidents Mubarak and Obama

After Mubarak’s speech on Thursday, the chants rose in Tahrir Square: “The people and the army! Hand in hand!”

Amazingly, the Egyptian Army, by all standards probably one of the more corrupt military institutions in the world, is now the peacemaker in Egypt, perched above it all like a vulture calculating how long the Tahrir Square forces can hold out and how long Mubarak and his fat cronies can keep believing they’re leading Egypt.

Do the generals appease the demonstrators and essentially pull off a coup for democracy, pushing Mubarak into exile, then suspend the constitution and arrange real elections? Or do they appease Mubarak and Suleiman and start shooting demonstrators in front of the international media?

The top ranks of the military have a lot at stake. Its generals have vast holdings in shopping centers, water plants, consumer products and other commercial enterprises that they do not want to jeopardize. Much of this investment wealth, no doubt, is from the generous US funds extended to the Egyptian military to stabilize the Arab nation and serve the interests of peace with Israel.

Reportedly, the middle and lower ranks of military officers are more in real sympathy with the Tahrir Square movement. So far, the military has not made its intentions clear.

What is clear, though, is that the longer the United States government continues to try to have it both ways – say they’re for real democracy as they support military repression – the more it’s going to lose ground in the hearts and minds of Egyptians. Some reports suggest the “strong” Obama statement Thursday afternoon was “too little too late.”

Listening to the diplomatic foggery that has been the Obama Administration’s triangulating day-to-day approach to the crisis has been nothing short of demoralizing. There was never a threat of removing the $1.5 billion a year in military aid if Mubarak did not give it up.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and his guest Egyptian NYU Professor Irshad Manji both strongly felt that President Obama was personally behind the Tahrir demonstrators but that he was hamstrung and could not say so. “Why is that?” Matthews asked. “Oil and Israel?” “Yes,” she said.

Our cynical support of despots is usually never so clearly articulated.

It’s the 900 pound gorilla in the room. The stability of Israel and Saudi Arabia are tied to – have been tied to for a long time — the kleptocratic Mubarak regime’s boot firmly on the necks of the Egyptian people. And the United States has been the enabler and the guarantor of the whole miserable process.

This is what the Tahrir democracy movement is up against. It’s also the sordid reality this Democratic president feels he must appease in order to retain power in America. So one day he talks nice about democracy and the next he and Hillary Clinton go soft on Mubarak and Suleiman.

In the end, one hopes the incredible spirit of Tahrir Square can hold out and shame our government into speaking clearly and acting boldly. I’m not holding my breath.

“I have never seen anything like what is happening in Tahrir Square,” was how the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it, reporting from the square. “The truth is now gushing out of here like a torrent from a broken hydrant.”

He talked about the “powerful sense of theft” motivating the people in the square. He meant the theft of Egypt’s national wealth as seen in President Mubarak’s nest egg reported at maybe $70 billion and the theft of “the future of an entire generation of Egyptians” as in the elimination of incentives and educational opportunities for the ordinary Egyptian population.

“If this moment is crushed,” Hesham Melham of Al Arabiya told Matthews, “we will reap the consequences.” And those consequences will not be positive.

Still, there have already been some pluses. For example, Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood have come off as quite honorable. Al Jazeera provided the best news coverage of the Tahrir Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood made it clear it’s not the boogie man it has been made out to be by so many islamophobic elements. Tahrir even provoked Glenn Beck to ratchet up his talk of a map-consuming “caliphate” to a truly absurd level, making one wonder whether he was reaching a Joe McCarthy-like flame-out.

This is how Essam El-Errian, a member of the guidance counsel of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, put it in a New York Times op-ed:

“We embrace democracy not as a foreign concept that must be reconciled with tradition, but as a set of principles and objectives that are inherently compatible with and reinforce Islamic tenets.”

This no doubt will send many Israeli rightists and their allies screaming into the night. But, then, it’s actually a quite reasonable and enlightened statement. That is, if one is inclined to allow Egyptians to think for themselves.