Breaking Egypt's spirit / A war of attrition
The Egyptian president knows that eliminating the protesters from the streets altogether will mean a bloodbath.
In July 1969 Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president at the time, declared that though he was unable to conquer Sinai, he could break Israel's spirit by attrition. Hosni Mubarak, who was then commander of the Egyptian air force, is adopting the same attitude when it comes to countering the millions of Egyptians who would like to bring his 30-year reign to an end.
The Egyptian president knows that eliminating the protesters from the streets altogether will mean a bloodbath. So he has opted for something else: a war of attrition against the demonstrators.
Mubarak met yesterday with the military leadership, wanting to show that he remains in control. Egyptian Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi was photographed walking the streets of Cairo, embracing soldiers deployed at protest sites. The military forces in those areas were given clear orders to avoid confrontations with the demonstrators as much as they could, but not to give up on the key strategic locations.
The deployment of forces near the presidential palace, the Interior Ministry, the broadcasting authority and dozens of other locations is part of a military plan called "will" for which the army trained more than once in the past decade, in anticipation of a possible attempt to overthrow the regime by popular revolution.
That plan also calls for the army not to deal directly with the demonstrators, and soldiers have been operating under these guidelines since Friday, when they were first deployed in Cairo after police failed to contain the demonstrations.
Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al-Adly announced yesterday that the police and the internal security forces will return to the cities in order to ensure public order, following many complaints of looting, robbery and rape. However, the police will not head for Tahrir Square, the center of the demonstrations. The protesters will be permitted to go on holding rallies there, probably in the hope that as time passes the demonstrations will lose steam and their numbers will gradually decline.
Last night, tens of thousands of Egyptians went to the square, ready to demonstrate - and leaving open the question of which side will break first: the demonstrators or the security forces.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was authorized to hold a dialogue with the authorities to set up a unity government for an interim period until general elections are held.
ElBaradei went to Tahrir Square yesterday and once more called on Mubarak to step down.
Saying that what has begun is irreversible, he reiterated that the demonstrators have a single demand: an end to the regime and the start of a new Egypt.
He also said he intends to talk with the heads of the Egyptian army, indicating he may try to convince them to rid themselves of Mubarak.
In Israel, defense officials are still unsure of the implications of the turmoil. They view the protests as a historic turn of events, to be sure, but are still not sure what the bottom line is.
The view in Israel is that the struggle between the two sides is still continuing: The army is trying to restore calm and, to a certain degree, is taking advantage of the anarchy that has ensued for its own needs. The chaos may make Egyptians more willing to see the army restore order. If the army does succeed in this, the current government may be able to stay in power, at least temporarily. Senior Egyptian officials who spoke yesterday with their Israeli counterparts appeared confident and convinced that the army will ensure that the government stays on.
The image the Egyptian government conveys to the outside world is of paramount importance, since any additional weakness may bring it tumbling down. It is too soon to discount the Mubarak regime, although it will never be the same. The old guard may end up ensuring a relatively orderly transfer of power to an accepted successor - who will not be the president's son, Gamal Mubarak.
The anarchy has also affected the situation along the border between Sinai and Rafah, with Bedouin taking over the town on the Egyptian side of the border for a day and driving out the security forces. Presumably, Hamas is making use of the vacuum to send militants and arms into Sinai to continue their war on Israel from there.