NYT: Obama still pushing for Mubarak to go

Important story in the Times: White House, Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

The proposal also calls for the transitional government to invite members from a broad range of opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to begin work to open up the country’s electoral system in an effort to bring about free and fair elections in September, the officials said.

 They even have a response from an Egyptian official:

“What they’re asking cannot be done,” one senior Egyptian official said, citing clauses in the Egyptian Constitution that bar the vice president from assuming power. Under the Constitution, the speaker of Parliament would succeed the president. “That’s my technical answer,” the official added. “My political answer is they should mind their own business.”

A lot of people inside and outside Egypt must be wondering: why are these senior officials backing Hosni Mubarak to the hilt? Some of it may be personal loyalty, for sure. But for this generation and caste of army officers, there are bigger issues at stake too:

  • A fear of constitutional chaos (expressed by the official above) or unconstitutionality that would pry open the door for a complete reworking of the constitution (i.e. a constitutional assembly drafting a new document) that would fundamentally change the balance of power of the Egyptian state.
  • If they were to get rid of Mubarak and Suleiman immediately assumed a transitional presidency, his position would be constitutionally dicey and he would be subject to attacks on a legal basis, undermining his legitimacy.
  • Fear of giving in, by principle, to the protestors on the question of the head of state, which from their point of view would set a bad precedent.
  • Resistance to this level of foreign meddling.

I suspect that if the NYT story is true — it could be the paper is being misled by the administration — then a formula will be found for Mubarak to step down. But Suleiman will be asking for a lot of guarantees to support him in exchange.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.