What Egypt's Autocrats Are Thinking

02/08/2011 08:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Imagine you are a dictatorship. Your rule rests on a few key pillars of domination. At the core is the military, not the poor, sorry lot of conscripts who make up most of the 400,000-strong armed forces -- not even the disenchanted middle-ranking officers, who see their professional institutional capacity rotting away from neglect -- but the senior officers and retired officers who have grown fat feeding at the trough of power and privilege. The loyalty of your military has been purchased not with patriotism but with opportunities to collect rents -- unearned income -- from skimming off military budgets and contracts and (according to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks) ownership of protected industries like water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotels, and gasoline.

No less crucial to your dominance is the one institution of the state that works with some (ruthless) efficiency: the internal security establishment, including the dreaded intelligence agency (the Mukhabarat), the regular police, and a vast shadowy network of agents and informers. Add to that the ruling party and its claimed millions of members, most of whom share but only the crumbs of the regime's corrupt patronage; the state-controlled media, which dominate information flows; and a circle of favored businessmen.

The system works not to develop your country -- for that is not its purpose -- but to sustain your rule, and your ability to suck wealth from the country. If need be, you will order the system to arrest, torture, terrorize, and murder your opponents, but you would rather buy them off -- it is cheaper and more effective. So you corrupt the weak and co-opt the wavering. Periodically, you throw in a few cosmetic political reforms, and a parliamentary election that has some faint reflections of competition because opponents win a few seats. It is not what Mario Vargas Llosa said of Mexico's dominant party system in the 1980s -- "the perfect dictatorship" -- but it is supple enough, "the resilient dictatorship."

Now, all of a sudden, your rule is on the ropes. The fever of revolt and popular empowerment is breaking out all over. Your buildings are decrepit and your infrastructure is crumbling. Partial economic reforms have not relieved the stench of stagnation. Over the last twenty years, your nation's standard of living has not improved at all, while most of your neighbors have seen their per capita incomes triple, or at least double. Now, prices of basic commodities are soaring. Your people feel squeezed and abused. Your population has nearly quadrupled in the six decades your system has been in place. More than half of it is now under 25. Large numbers of them are unemployed or dreadfully underemployed. But they are educated, technically savvy, and mad as hell at the massive injustice of it all. Long resigned, suddenly they are aroused.

Hundreds of thousands of them gather in the streets. Your domestic and international allies equivocate in their support. Your rule is in question -- and with it your economic dominance, too. Who knows? When it is all over, you could even wind up dead like Romania's Ceausescu.

But after sixty years in power, you do not give up in the face of popular revolt. You fight back. First you unleash your thugs on peaceful protestors. No, that does not work. Too embarrassing in the glare of international media. You need to return to more flexible and cynical methods. Check and intimidate the journalists who carry the story to the world. Round up and torture activists as they peal away from the crowds. Kill some when you can, so long as no one seems to be watching. Wear them down, down, down. Smile. Admit a few errors. You welcome negotiations with Wise Persons -- moderates who understand the need for talking, not mobilizing. Meanwhile, you infiltrate and divide the ranks. Sow divisions and suspicions. Buy off the broader public with incremental concessions and fiscal stimulus. Make the protestors the enemy of normalcy and economic recovery. Gradually you exhaust them and regain the upper hand. You tighten the military cordon around the protests. Now their numbers have dwindled. Soon you will be able to clear them out in the dead of night, when the cameras have gone to sleep.

Meanwhile, you play your international backing like a fiddle again. You are the indispensable partner for peace and stability. The alternative to you is extremism, and then war. Maybe, as in a bad marriage, you have grown fat and ugly over the years, but you still have that something your spouse cannot do without. Your spouse swallows principle and pride, gestures at a protest, and then quietly accedes to "reality".

You are the resilient dictatorship. You have weathered the storm.

This is the thinking that now seems to drive the behavior of Egypt's ruling elites. They believe that time is on their side. For them, time is measured in weeks, maybe months, or at most a few years, as they have no answer for the huge demographic bulge of frustrated youth they cannot employ, contain, or inspire. They have no answers to the country's fundamental problems, for any fundamental reforms would require real economic and political competition, and that would unravel the system.

Even if Hosni Mubarak were to leave the scene tomorrow, it is increasingly apparent that his successors, beginning with his new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, are determined to preserve the system of monopoly power and privilege at all costs. Driving Mubarak from power would thus, in itself, achieve rather little -- unless he were replaced by a neutral caretaker government.

At the moment, power seems to be shifting rapidly back to the regime. After 15 days of street protests, the opposition is divided -- between the street and the negotiating table, and apparently even on the street. Doubt, division, demoralization and fatigue are creeping in. Economic anxiety and exigency compel a return of normal economic life. The position of the brave young demonstrators in Tahrir Square grows more precarious by the hour. What can they do?

The situation remains fluid. That is the good news. The regime's legitimacy, never strong, is further eroded. Egypt's brave and inventive youth, who have shown repeated and extraordinary ability to mobilize quickly and peacefully, will not go away, and neither will their skills. But mobilization is not enough. Democratic movements do not triumph without strategy and organization.

The imperative now for Egypt's democratic forces is to buy time and political space to negotiate for systemic changes (including some constitutional reforms) that would lead to a free and fair presidential election later this year. With that, other reforms could follow. While the demonstrators have a reasonable list of demands for systemic change, it seems unlikely that they can secure them quickly, before their strategic position on the street weakens further.

But there is one simple demand that the entire opposition can unify around and that the Tahrir square protestors can stipulate as a condition for their withdrawal: An end to repression. Repeal the emergency law; release political prisoners -- not least, the large number who have been arrested and are still being arrested during these last two weeks of protests; end torture; and open up the country's detention centers to international inspection. Allow freedom of speech, organization, press, and assembly. That is the minimum they need to leave Tahrir Square in safety and dignity.

If repression largely ends, then Egyptians can mobilize again if the regime tries -- as it surely will -- to stall and stonewall at the negotiating table. If the regime retains the ability to terrorize and torture opponents at will, then it may be able to preempt or crush new mobilization and, for another deadening interval, prevail.

Egypt's dictatorship will feign ignorance and impotence. Maybe the missing youths have disappeared themselves. Maybe the missing journalists were picked up by "rogue elements." Maybe it is all a conspiracy to make the regime look bad. Maybe that young kid lying on the floor of the interrogation room with a broken jaw really did run into a door...

And maybe it is none of our business in the United States.

But after 30 years and $68 billion of military and economic support, there is no way the United States can claim to be a disinterested party in this crisis. The only way we could "leave them alone," as Simon Jenkins appeals in The Guardian, is to cease subsidizing this tyranny. If the Mubarak regime will not end the reign of repression and agree to some kind of international monitoring of Egypt's human rights conditions, that is exactly what we should do.