Gibbs on Egypt: Violence against protesters is deplorable, transition must begin "immediately"

With this, we’re now officially past the “orderly transition” phase of nudge-nudging.

Last night, Obama issued a brief public statement that included just one line about a prospective deadline for Mubarak’s exit from power: “My belief is that an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and it must begin now,” Obama said.

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was more explicit Wednesday.

“‘Now’ means ‘yesterday,'” Gibbs explained. “When we said ‘now,’ we meant ‘yesterday’… that’s what the people of Egypt want to see,” Gibbs said, adding that a process that begins one week, one month, or many months from now won’t suffice.

That’s fine, but there’s no going back from it. If Mubarak cracks heads and clings to power, we have no option now but to cut him loose and continue to politely pound (tap?) the table in the name of reform. In fact, if the crackdown is bad enough, replete with uniformed Egyptian troops shooting at protesters, Obama will have little choice but to cancel U.S. foreign aid. Listen carefully at the beginning of the clip below and you’ll find Gibbsy trying to leave a tiny bit of space to maneuver on that point, condemning the violence today as “outrageous” but suggesting, preposterously, that he’s not sure if the government is behind it. That’s necessary spin, I guess, but it’s pathetic all the same. Nicholas Kristof, who’s on the scene in Tahrir Square, says there’s no doubt:

The pro-democracy protesters are unarmed and have been peaceful at every step. But the pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.

In my area of Tahrir, the thugs were armed with machetes, straight razors, clubs and stones. And they all had the same chants, the same slogans and the same hostility to journalists. They clearly had been organized and briefed. So the idea that this is some spontaneous outpouring of pro-Mubarak supporters, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, who happen to end up clashing with other side — that is preposterous. It’s difficult to know what is happening, and I’m only one observer, but to me these seem to be organized thugs sent in to crack heads, chase out journalists, intimidate the pro-democracy forces and perhaps create a pretext for an even harsher crackdown.

Some of the Mubarak goons are probably the Egyptian equivalent of Iran’s basij, i.e. young thugs supported and brainwashed by the regime and sent into the streets terrorize political enemies, especially at moments of unrest. Think of them as a plainclothes version of the SA. But maybe not all of them are so amateur: According to Al Jazeera, at least one thug captured by the demonstrators is an Egyptian military officer. No doubt there are state police in the mix too, as they make their living doing this sort of thing. The reason the uniforms are off is precisely because it gives Mubarak the sort of plausible deniability being used by Gibbs below. If the protesters go home tomorrow and Hosni holds on, the White House spin, I’m sure, will be that we’ll never really know who those “pro-Mubarak demonstrators” were in Tahrir Square. Sad. Even the Onion can’t quite make it funny.

One other note. Our anchor inside Egypt through all of this has been the military, since they’re the only institution left (except possibly Al Jazeera) that still commands respect among the public. Will that change after today’s thuggery, though? Rumblings from Time magazine:

As volleys of stones rained down across the pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak lines in the square, frantic protesters expressed their shock and horror that the army was not intervening to stop the violence. “The thugs are hitting us from every direction right now,” says Mahmoud Afifi, an activist with the 6th of April youth movement, who spoke from the midst of the clashes. “The National Democratic Party paid them money to come in here and attack us. And we don’t know why the army didn’t stop them. We are very angry at the army now.”…

What’s happening now is a dramatic polarization of the streets between pro- and anti-regime forces. And with this backdrop, the army’s reputation for neutrality has become a device for political drama and maneuvering. “I think that the regime is using everything to maintain its continuity in power,” says Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the Al Ahram Quarterly Democracy Review, which is published by the government-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “And the neutrality of the army could be used from the regime to stay in power.” It provides the regime with a way of denying the advantage of the streets to the protesters while keeping control of it. Says Mustafa: “As we saw, the army was neutral in the morning when they saw the other crowd arriving armed and on camels and everything. And they paved the way for them. And after that, they stayed neutral even as the battle turned bloody and finished.”

The army’s spin on this is that they’re staying neutral between “anti- and pro-government demonstrators,” which is tantamount to saying that while they refuse to fire on the crowd themselves (at least while in uniform!), they’re happy to stand by while other branches of the state’s fascist apparatus do so. And the U.S. response to this? Quoth NBC: “[T]he officials said the Egyptians have not said exactly what, if any, action they intend to take against demonstrators — and U.S. officials have not asked.” There’s some distressing plausible deniability in that too, although as noted above, the die is already cast here. The U.S. position is that Mubarak must go “immediately” and that violence mustn’t be used against the crowd; once it becomes impossible to deny that the regime intends to ignore us on both counts, we’ll have to distance ourselves somehow. Exit quotation: “Mubarak has the initiative, and appears inclined to use it.”