For a brief time earlier today, when rumors began circulating that Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak had met with military leaders and would announce his resignation, there seemed to be hope that one of the protestors’ major demands would be fulfilled. Initially, many of us were concerned that Mubarak’s departure, while significant, would leave his newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, in charge, and Suleiman is really no better than Mubarak. Nick Bauman at Mother Jones (who, by the way, has been doing yeoman work on the Egypt uprising for weeks now), notes that Suleiman ran Egypt’s intelligence service for nearly twenty years, and in that capacity:
Suleiman managed the Egyptian end of Clinton- and Bush-era “extraordinary renditions,” in which people whom the US suspected of torture were flown to Egypt (“rendered”) and tortured. (Stephen Grey’s Ghost Plane and Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine also feature material on Suleiman’s role in torture.) As noted in Mother Jones’ Egypt explainer, [Jane] Mayer [author of The Dark Side] quoted Edward Walker, the former US ambassador to Egypt, who described Suleiman as “not squeamish.” MoJo’s Jim Ridgeway has more on Suleiman’s role in torture.
What a peach, huh.
Then, of course, today’s announcement turned out to be far worse than what we first had feared, because Mubarak did not agree to step down but only delegated certain presidential powers to Suleiman. This afternoon on NPR’s All Things Considered, Egypt’s Ambassador to the U.S., Sameh Shoukry, told Melissa Block that Mubarak delegated to Suleiman essentially all powers of the president except certain non-delegable powers, which non-delegable powers include the power to amend the constitution and the power to dissolve parliament – two of the key demands of the protesters in addition to Mubarak’s resignation.
So, at the moment hope for a peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt may hinge on a man with a checkered past, human-rights-wise, who lacks certain of the key powers necessary to accomplish real change.
Setting aside for the moment the question whether Suleiman has the power to effect change in Egypt, there is precedent for an insider like him rising to the occasion and bringing peaceful reform to an historically repressive regime: Witness Frederick William de Klerk, the last President of Apartheid-era South Africa.
De Klerk was a lifelong supporter of Apartheid and a member of the racist Nationalist Party when he took over the presidency from P.W. Botha, who resigned under pressure in 1989. But de Klerk knew the time for change had come, and he had to act fairly swiftly to accomplish a peaceful transition to majority rule. So, de Klerk took two major steps early in his presidency that paved the way: In February 1990 he agreed to release Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress and by then the world’s most famous political prisoner; and even prior to Mandela’s release de Klerk legitimized opposition parties representing the country’s Black African majority:
De Klerk had his moment of truth nine days earlier, in an address to the all-white parliament that coined the phrase “a new South Africa”. “There were gasps in the house, yes,” said De Klerk, “but not at the news of Mr Mandela’s release. The gasps came when I announced the unbanning not only of the ANC but also the South African Communist party and of all affiliated organisations, which included the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe. There were gasps then and, from the far-right party, protests and boos.”
Moreover, releasing Mandela was more than just a goodwill gesture to pacify Black South Africans. Instead, de Klerk released Mandela and legitimized opposition parties for the express purpose of negotiating with them to draft a new constitution and to establish procedures for the transition to a genuine democracy that guaranteed full citizenship rights – including the right to vote and to hold office – to all South Africans.
In South Africa, however, the process was long and drawn out. De Klerk became president in September 1989, Mandela was released in February 1990, but the first truly democratic elections under the new constitution did not take place until April 1994. It is a testament to Black South African leaders like Nelson Mandela that the majority population displayed such patience after literally decades of Apartheid; but South Africa’s experience from 1989 onward is hardly typical: As any student of history knows, the hallmark of popular revolutions throughout the world has been that they do not occur at the height of repression, but occur when dictators begin slowly to lift the yoke of repression through minor reforms and promises of freedoms to come at a later date. Because when people are truly repressed, they’re too busy trying to survive from day to day to organize and rise up; but when they get a taste of reform – when they actually begin to think that freedom may be possible – that’s when their expectations begin to rise. And almost invariably, peoples’ expectations rise faster than their dictators’ are willing to concede power; and very soon the minor, begrudging reforms and those little whiffs of freedom that a repressive regime allows will no longer mollify the people, but, in fact, serve only to enrage them.
That’s when people demand change, and that’s when they will fight for it.
So here we are in Egypt, with Mubarak still in power and Suleiman, Egypt’s putative de Klerk – assuming he aspires to be Egypt’s de Klerk – taking possession of some presidential powers, but not the critical powers necessary to change the constitution and meet the protesters’ demands. That’s a role that would be difficult enough under normal circumstances, but seems to be nearly impossible given that Mubarak’s left Suleiman effectively hamstrung.
Nonetheless, if Suleiman wants to grab his de Klerk moment the time to do it is right now, but he’s got to do what de Klerk did on a much quicker timeframe: Free political prisoners, negotiate with the opposition, recognize all legitimate opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and do whatever is necessary to force Mubarak to agree to constitutional reforms or get Mubarak to resign so that Suleiman can work with the opposition to reform it himself. Or, of course, he and Mubarak can both resign and let real reformers transform Egypt’s government.
Otherwise, Omar Suleiman can go down in history as the guy who dropped the match on Egypt’s poweder keg. The choice is his.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.