The rioting taking place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square has much to teach about politics in the Arab order. The crowds are not there by accident. For some past days the protesters appeared to have everything their own way. Actually President Mubarak was biding his time and weighing the balance of forces. He wins who mobilizes superior force. Opposition leaders including Mohamed El Baradei and the Muslim Brothers appeared to have mobilized that superior force. Capable operators, they also appeal unanimously to the Western media. Western reporters one and all interpret what they see in terms with which they are familiar at home. So anti-Mubarak good — pro-Mubarak bad, and besides, hasn’t a chance.
How taken aback the media are that Mubarak is mobilizing his defenders, and timing it to maximum effect. Thousands turn up to counter-balance the protesters. The consequent rioting looks frightening, but the arrival yesterday of the tourist camel from the pyramids and some tourist ponies gave away the element of theater. Nobody resorts to firearms that would clear the area immediately. The fact that dozens of tanks all around could have stopped the rioting, but do nothing, means that what is going on is the equivalent of a poll to determine who has the numbers. Somewhere in the background are the generals who can swing it, as they have been doing since the days of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers in the 1950s. And the force is going to rise until it becomes clear who really does have the numbers. It looks a fair bet right now that Mubarak will stay in office until the September election, which gives him time to organize the succession for his new vice president and companion in arms Omar Suleiman and assure continuity.
When President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron and their spokesmen come out with denunciations of Mubarak, threaten to cut off aid, and speechify about “orderly transition” as though it were some Holy Grail, they are taking the events unfolding before them at face value. Their haste to jump to conclusions that don’t correspond to the situation is partly the fault of the Euro-centric perspectives that the media pump up, and partly stems from ignorance about the invisible springs of action in the authoritarian Arab state. These Western leaders look like earning the contempt of those in power and those seeking to wrest power. A remarkable achievement.