Belmont Club

How Now?

The main idea threads in my posts since open dissent broke out in Egypt are as follows:

  1. Mubarak is finished.
  2. If a popular rebellion is driven underground the organizations best prepared for clandestine warfare eventually gain control over it and absorb the people radicalized by the crackdown.
  3. The MB is waiting in the wings to either gain power gradually or outright as the situation unfolds.
  4. The Obama administration should have been ready with an alternative Democracy Agenda, but it wasn’t.
  5. The current administration reponse has been scattershot, and fundamentally based on signaling its intentions, over a variety of channels, to Egypt and the international media.
  6. Mubarak seems determined to fight it out.

Given this a priori, which may or may not be correct, what does one make of Sandmonkey’s explosive interview with Roger Simon, in which he asserts 1, 4, 6 but says the MB has so far not played a leading role in protests and that Mubarak must go? To that see #2. The future of the Egyptian revolution now stands on the razor’s edge.

There was a time when the US handled a situation like this correctly. The parallels between the Philippines 1986 and Egypt 2011 are as great as their differences.  If the MB was taken by surprise, so was the Communist Party of the Philippines which by virtue of its guerilla army and clandestine infrastructure, should have been the winners after Marcos fell. But  during the 1986 People’s Power Revolution that brought Cory Aquino to power, the Communist Party of the Philippines had dealt itself out of the cards by deciding not to participate in the “snap” elections which were the result of US pressure, but during which Marcos fixed the count. They did not participate in it partly because the snap elections were due to US pressure. They then made the additional mistake of staying away from the spontaneous massive demonstrations in front of the Department of Defense on the EDSA freeway,occasioned by personal conflict between Marcos and his Secretary of Defense. By the time the Communist Party had realized their mistake and got back into action, it was too late. After only a few days, Marcos was driven out and the prize had slipped from the CPP’s grasp, probably forever.

The difference in this case is that unlike Marcos, Mubarak is going down hard.

I must confess that at the time, I too thought Marcos would go down hard and believed he would try to save the situation by opening fire with artillery on the crowd (because they wouldn’t have to “see” the victims) and on that hunch went swanning around east of camps in the White Plains and Marikina Valley areas looking for artillery units that I was convinced might be there. As it turned out, I was looking in the wrong place. The sky was where the action was. And the real debate was not over whether to use artillery, but to use air.

The 15th Strike Wing had gone over to Cory Aquino’s side. “The finest hour of the 15th Strike Wing came during the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. The Wing Commander, then COLONEL ANTONIO E SOTELO, led a flight of Sikorsky gun ships to join forces with rebel forces at Camp Crame. The ‘Sotelo Landing’ tilted the balance in favor of the Enrile-Ramos faction and inspired other military commanders as well. This eventually led to the end of the 20-year Marcos Regime. Following this, Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino Jr., assumed as President of the Republic.”

For Marcos, the situation was now critical. Would he take out the helos?  Would he fire on the crowds? There was a bizarre debate on TV press conference between Chief of Staff Fabian Ver and Ferdinand Marcos himself, about whether to open fire on the demonstrators or not.  Wikipedia recalls the dialogue:

Fabian Ver: We have to immobilize the helicopters they’ve got. We have two fighter planes flying now to strike at any time, sir.
Ferdinand Marcos: My order is not to attack.
Ver: They are massing civilians near our troops and we cannot keep on withdrawing. You asked me to withdraw yesterday….
Marcos (interrupting): My order is to disperse [them] without shooting them.
Ver: We cannot withdraw all the time…
Marcos:’ No, no, no! Hold on. You disperse the crowds without shooting them. You may use any other weapon…

In the end, Marcos was transported by US Navy helicopters, first to Clark, then to Guam by C-130 and finally to Hickam in Hawaii where he was live out his days in exile. But imagine what might have happened if the 15th Strike Wing had not defected or Marcos had ordered an air-strike on the massed crowds? Then we would might have a situation resembling Egypt. The crowds would have been radicalized. Perhaps Cory herself might have been killed or arrested. And that would have allowed Communist Party Chairman Jose Maria Sison to recover and possibly take over the process of regime change.

The difference between the events of 1986 and those of the present day are that Ronald Reagan had begun the pressure on Marcos far earlier in 1985, leading to the “snap” elections. To some extent the Reagan administration was “in the process” from the start. And once the process of change started, they were well positioned; the US influence had contacts on many levels. They had informal links with the Catholic Church in a way that they perhaps lack with the MB today. They certainly had contacts within the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Without taking the least credit from the Colonel Sotelo’s decision to defect, how much of this was at least in the background influenced by the organizational culture and personal counsel which US military contacts helped shape? God was at EDSA, no doubt. But off to one side was Ronald Reagan and those who served under him.

The Obama administration has been caught out on two levels. They were not in the process early enough and they’re signaling operations do not provide enough purchase to steer the Egyptian situation through the rapids ahead. The root cause of this is simple. Command failure. The President has yet to decide on a preferred outcome and press for it with a specific process roadmap. It’s not clear he’s done that. Unless he does, Mubrak will do it for him; and if not Mubarak, then eventually the MB or another organization will pick up the pieces after spontaneity has been beaten down. Wait and see is not a winning strategy.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.