Could DeGaulle’s Playbook Work in Egypt?

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There are only three ways to deal with the sort of uprising that has occurred in the last week in Egypt: smash it, face it down more or less peacefully, or yield to it. Mobs, even when they are championing a good cause, are cowardly and easily routed by force. Napoleon demonstrated this with his famous “whiff of grapeshot” (cannons loaded with small pellets or other hard objects). So did Deng Xiaoping in Tiananmen Square. Charles de Gaulle wrote the playbook for facing down demonstrators and strikes in 1968: He waited for the bourgeois instincts of the French to bubble up in concern that these antics would actually cost them money, ostentatiously assured himself of the loyalty of the army (after the chief of the Paris police said, in accord with precedent, that the force was no longer reliable), and then spoke to the country for less than five minutes.

“As the sole legitimate repository of national and republican power, I have, in the last 24 hours, considered every means, I repeat every means, for the conservation of that power,” he began. He then announced that he would not retire: “I have a mandate from the people; I will fulfill it.” He would not replace the prime minister, “whose value, solidity, and capacity have earned the homage of all,” and had already dissolved the National Assembly for new elections. These would take place in the ways and on the timetable provided by the Constitution, unless the agents of chaos — whom he identified as totalitarian Communists, “colored, at the outset, with the deceiving appearance of discredited politicians who would shortly be discarded” — prevailed. In such an event, it was clear, he would unleash the notoriously heavy-handed French army.

He concluded: “The republic will not abdicate. . . . Progress, independence, and peace will prevail with liberty. Vive la République! Vive la France!” This was an unanswerable reply: let the bourgeoisie become bored and alarmed and then stand absolutely on democracy against mob rule, and — if the mobs disrupt the democratic processes — deploy overwhelming force. The uprising collapsed like a soufflé and, in the campaign following, de Gaulle asked where the revolutionary leaders had been when he had defied Nazi Germany, and when he had crushed army putschists. He then won the greatest electoral victory in 175 years of sporadic republican French history.

The key questions on the use of force are: Will the regime fire live ammunition at the protesters and will the forces responsible for ending the demonstrations carry out such orders? The Shah of Iran, like Louis XVI, declined to fire on his own people and had to flee (a gentler fate than the French king’s decapitation). There was no hesitation in Tiananmen Square (even though fire hoses and rubber bullets would have been sufficient), nor by the late presidents Hafez Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And their orders were carried out. But when Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu gave the same orders in 1989, the army and police mutinied instead, and seized and executed Ceausescu and his wife.

It need hardly be emphasized that Mubarak is not de Gaulle and Egypt, unlike France, is not and never has been a democracy, but Mubarak has followed some of the same techniques. He waited for there to be some looting and presumably disconcertion of responsible members of the public, deployed the army to prevent utter mayhem but with very restrained rules of engagement, not testing its willingness to go to extremes for an 82-year-old despot who has been fairly loose with official largesse and has never been especially popular. And he promised fair elections on the existing timetable. At the time of writing, the demonstrations are continuing, but I doubt if they can be sustained just to bring forward the end of the Mubarak era by a few months.

The army could probably be motivated to put down vandalism and unruly demonstrations against a Mubarak clinging to a slightly more dignified exit than that of the hapless and hastily departed president of Tunisia. Decades of pampering and indulging the officer corps should buy the President at least that. The endless blathering about the “Arab street” on CNN and other such sources of instant insight is piffle; almost the only thing Arab governments know is how to suppress mobs — if, that is, the governing authority controls the army. The Egyptian army’s prestige is based on the combination of its penetration of the Israeli Bar Lev Line on the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the systematic suppression of the fact that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger prevailed upon Golda Meir and Ariel Sharon not to force the surrender of the southern Egyptian army in the same war, in order to enable Sadat to make an honorable peace of equals. In a not overly glorious country, a little martial valor goes a long way.

Even Arab experts admit great uncertainty about what will come next. There is no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood, a thoroughly terrorist organization that assassinated Anwar Sadat, could come close to winning an election, and the army will not tolerate a coup d’état, other than, if necessary, by its own leaders, in emulation of the initial rise of the National Democrats in the coup by Colonel Nasser and comrades in 1952. (There have been just one party, and three presidents, in 58 years.) The attempt by Mohammed ElBaradei to represent himself as a respected and popular leader is a fraud and a levitation. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was just an apologist for Khamenei and Ahmedinejad’s nuclear military program in Iran, which ElBaradei considers an equal-opportunity move by Islam (though Pakistan already has what it calls “an Islamic bomb”) and by the developing world generally.

President Obama’s remarks on Tuesday night were relatively inoffensive, but the United States wants to be careful about bandying the idea of democracy around too loosely in countries that have had no experience of it and have a naturally combustible socioeconomic makeup. It should also make a goal-line stand for the theory that to be America’s ally is not subscribing to one’s own death warrant. The Chinese stick with their allies, no matter how reprehensible they are, such as the Kims in North Korea and the colonels in Burma, and even the unspeakable Mugabe. The U.S. should avoid such lepers, but it mustn’t run for cover whenever the heat comes up on its allies. Mubarak, like the Saudis and Maliki and even the Jordanians, has certainly played a double game with the extremists, but has been relatively faithful to the American alliance and the Israeli peace arrangements. But the U.S. must not imagine it has much ability to influence internal political events in a large and very foreign and ancient country such as Egypt.

There isn’t much likelihood of a pan-Arab movement to more representative government. The king of Jordan can’t go any farther toward democracy, or the Palestinian majority will throw out the Hashemite Dynasty and subjugate the Bedouin minority that rules the country. Long-serving presidents are forced out quite often without any seismic repercussions. Predictions about the Middle East are always hazardous, and often odious; I have not been in the region at all for nearly a decade and not in Egypt for 36 years, but I am satisfied from watching television for the last few days that I am as qualified as most people being represented as worth listening to about it, and I think Mubarak will advance the election date to the late spring, and new faces with a military background will be elevated in passably serious elections; changes will be slight but positive. For new readers, my record in such predictions is respectable but fallible.

Conrad Black
’s dispatch first appeared in the
National Post of Canada.

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