New Egypt plan: Let's send Mubarak on permanent medical leave or something

This jibes with the story in the Journal on Saturday about a compromise in the works to retain Mubarak as a “figurehead” president but have his powers devolve to VP Omar Suleiman and whatever parliamentary government hatches from the egg that’s been laid. Why Mubarak would find quitting intolerable yet accept being shipped off to Europe per some manufactured health crisis is unclear to me — wouldn’t leaving office as a perceived invalid be even more humiliating? — but such are the vagaries of a dictator’s pride.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may travel to Germany as a patient in part of an exit strategy proposed by the United States, the online version of German newspaper Der Spiegel reported Monday.

The United States government’s plan to end to the political chaos in Egypt appeared to be a scenario wherein Mubarak travels to Germany for a “prolonged health check,” the report suggested…

Talks are already being held with suitable hospitals, particularly with Max-Grundig-Klinik Bühlerhöhe in the southwestern town of Bühl near Baden-Baden, Spiegel Online reported, according to sources close to the clinic.

The NYT also got wind of the “annual medical leave” idea, although its source was one of the opposition spokesmen who are negotiating with the regime — which makes me wonder if this is propaganda being cooked up by protesters to embarrass Mubarak or to make him paranoid that Suleiman is secretly selling him out.

Meanwhile, via the Christian Science Monitor, a curious detail that might corroborate the “medical leave” scenario:

Two Brothers had just come from the group’s first formal talks ever with a government that has hounded the Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and best-organized opposition group, for generations. Along with secular democracy activists and reform-minded tycoons, they sought to present a united front for reform to Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former spymaster whose career was largely built on crushing Islamist movements.

But the moment had a hint of a climbdown. The Brotherhood backed off its demand that Mr. Mubarak step down immediately and make other concessions, for apparently little concrete in return. Suddenly, the one clear demand uniting them with the youths in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – Mubarak’s resignation – was gone…

“I don’t know what [senior Brotherhood leader Esam el-] Erian is thinking, I really don’t,” said a secular protest leader, who’s spent years trying to bring the Brotherhood into a broader reform camp. “We all know who Suleiman is and what he’s capable of. This is splitting the Brotherhood and could leave all of us isolated and in danger.”

Why would they concede the single biggest demand of the protesters at a moment when Suleiman is feeling domestic pressure and White House pressure to negotiate? The only explanation I can think of is that opposition’s been assured that Mubarak will lose day-to-day power but that he needs to be retained as some sort of ceremonial leader as a concession to his supporters in Egypt. That’s tantamount to having him step down, which means the core demand has been accepted. But, er, why would the Brotherhood expect Suleiman (and Mubarak) to honor that pledge? They’re inherently untrustworthy.

In case you missed it yesterday, below you’ll find Obama’s interview with O’Reilly in which he assures the public that the Brotherhood “don’t have majority support in Egypt.” That may be true at the party level — most of the analyses I’ve seen suggest that they’d take 25 percent or so in elections — but the Brotherhood doesn’t need a parliamentary majority to push its agenda. Remember that poll I linked last week showing Israel’s favorable rating in Egypt at, er, 3/92? When you’ve got support that massive, you don’t need to control the government. All you need is … democracy:

Muslim Brotherhood leaders interviewed by TIME in Tahrir Square consistently spoke of their commitment to the civil, non-sectarian nature of the state. “The Muslim Brotherhood takes Islam as a template, but we don’t have a religious state or God-ordained rule,” says Ibrahim Zakaria, a Brotherhood official and former member of parliament. “We believe in democracy and all its rules. We believe in the principle that the people are the origin and source of sovereignty, and that the people chose their leaders in free and secret ballots.”

On the subject of whether or not a new Egyptian government should cancel the Camp David Accord, they demurred. “We are not going to cancel any agreement previously made by the government,” says Zakaria. “But if there is a referendum about this or any other agreement, then we obey the people’s will.”

They’ll push their platform by calling for public referenda and then demanding that the government obey the people’s will. A perfectly legitimate democratic means towards a perfectly illiberal end. I’ll give ’em this: They’re not stupid.

Exit question: Would an Islamist upswing in Egypt force the U.S. to make regime change in Iran the new cornerstone of its Middle East policy? A “realist” might argue the opposite, that we should actually back off Iran now to create a balance of power based on the loathing between Shiite fundies in Tehran and Sunni fundies in Cairo. That’s a dangerous game, though — really dangerous, potentially — and it might create space for Iran to try to reach a detente with the Brotherhood based on their mutual anti-U.S. interest. Remember, the mullahs have been isolated by Sunni regimes in the region for a long time now; making common cause against the west and Israel with fanatics in Egypt would break that Sunni bloc. In fact, Iran has already achieved this on a small scale by sponsoring Hamas, which is really just the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian chapter. (That’s why Khamenei sounds so excited about the protests in Cairo.) The U.S.’s best option now to bust an Islamist bloc before it congeals might be to aid the green revolution in Iran, which would surely replace the mullahs with a more liberal (albeit maybe only slightly more liberal) regime.