The lingering fear in Cairo right now is another Tiananmen Square, a brief moment of liberation ended with rapid, ruthless violence. But that’s not going to happen for a couple of reasons. First, it’s clear that the military is not firmly under Hosni Mubarak’s control anymore. There are numerous anecdotes of Egyptian tanks following the lead of protesters and standing between the (still loyalist) police and the crowds. If anything, a Mubarak call for a crackdown would like lead either to a schism within the Egyptian military, and perhaps a civil war, or an immediate coup.
The second reason why there will be no Tiananmen is that the U.S. couldn’t tolerate it. Regardless of our past policies towards Mubarak, there’s no chance of maintaining the status quo. Sooner or later, Mubarak is done. All that’s left, from the U.S. perspective, is the end game and how well the future leadership of Egypt can be maintained as a critical U.S. ally.
Montaigne’s fifth essay focused on a situation similar to one being faced by Mubarak. Under siege, perhaps without hope, should a leader parlay with the opposition? Until today, that was a moot point, because there was no face to the Egyptian revolt. But the New York Times is now reporting that Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and diplomat, has emerged as the accepted leader of the opposition forces.
If Mubarak were to open negotiations with ElBaradei, he would, in effect, signal the end of his rule. So what would he have to gain from such a maneuver? Montaigne raises the issue of valor as a cause for such a parlay:
There may be a momentary advantage in deception, but only those men acknowledge that they are beaten who know that it was neither by ruse nor mischance but by valour, soldier against soldier in a legitimate and just war.
I readily trust others: but I would only do so with difficulty if ever I were to give grounds for thinking that I was acting out of despair or from lack of courage rather than from frankness and trust in a man’s word.
Hosni Mubarak came to power in Egypt in the most difficult of circumstances and held the nation together after Anwar Sadat’s assassination while keeping the country from drifting towards radicalism through three decades. Signaling now that he was open to negotiating the end would offer him the opportunity to leave power just as honorably – and courageously – as he rose to the Presidency.