Swarm tactics befuddle police in Cairo

For the last few hours, I've been glued to my Twitter stream, monitoring the spreading protests in Egypt. The demonstrations have long been planned as a response to "Police Day," a much-unloved national holiday originally intended to honor cops in the city of Ismailia who stood against the British invasion of 1952. In recent years, it's become a potent symbol of everything that's wrong with Egypt under the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

This year, the protesters, inspired by events in Tunisia and outraged by the death last year of Khalid Said, a young man brutally tortured and killed by police in Alexandria, organized themselves on Facebook and called for a "day of anger" across the country.

So far,  they've succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Events are moving rapidly, but here's what we know so far: The protests began at different points in the city, such as Doqqi in Giza to the west and Shubra in the north, and converged on points downtown. I've seen reports of large crowds in  Ramses, Abdeen, Ataba, and Tahrir squares -- all major important public spaces. There are also scattered demonstrations in other parts of the country, such as Alexandria, Mansoura, and Sinai.

It's too early to say that these are "massive" protests -- there are, after all, some 80 million people in Egypt, and no report I've seen thus far puts today's number at more than 100,000 -- but they could easily grow into something truly huge. So far, the police have mostly taken a hands-off approach, albeit with beatings, tear gas, and water cannons in some places. But if the demonstrations continue to grow, Mubarak could face the same dilemma that faced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia: Crack down for real, try to meet the protesters' demands halfway (say, by sacking his widely reviled interior minister, Habib al-Adly), or some combination of the two.

After today, Mubarak can't have great confidence in his Central Security Forces -- the riot police charged with putting down demonstrations. These are usually slim, scared-looking lads from upper Egypt, poorly trained and uneducated, with little pay and few perks. I've seen multiple reports of the CSF being outmaneuved and backing down in the face of protesters. The army is another matter -- more than a million men at arms, well-equipped and presumably well motivated to protect their significant interests across the country. (He can also call on the regular police and the vast resources of state security, which will no doubt be hunting down organizers in the days to come.) Will we be seeing tanks in the streets this spring?

It may not get to that point. But the Egyptian street got a taste of its power today. For a people long thought to be quiescent, apathetic, apolitical -- it must be an electrifying feeling. Hosni is not going to sleep well tonight.

Stay tuned.



Prestowitz: How American is Jeff Immelt?

After Larry Summers announced last fall that he would be stepping down as President Obama's chief economic adviser, I publicly called on the president to appoint GE Chairman Jeff Immelt as Larry's successor. So you might think I would be thrilled by the recent appointment of Immelt to replace Paul Volcker as Chairman of the President's outside economic advisers. But I'm afraid that I'm ambivalent at best. (If you read my last post on GE's deal to do an avionics joint venture with China's state owned Avic, you are not at all surprised).

On the one hand, I like Immelt because on several occasions he has said publicly something that I believe to be profoundly true: Namely, that America cannot prosper without a strong manufacturing base. It is not only that he says this, but that as the head of a global company with more foreign than U.S. sales and employees and very significant foreign shareholders, it takes some courage for him to call for stronger American manufacturing.

On the other hand, there are two linked problems. When I urged Obama to replace Summers with Immelt, I knew that, if he took the job, Immelt would have to resign from GE (which is probably why the job wasn't offered and/or wasn't accepted) and thus operate solely with U.S. interests in mind. As head of the White House's external economic advisers, however, Immelt will remain Chairman of GE. In that role, he cannot, indeed, he must not, think only of what is best for America. Rather he must focus on what he thinks is best for GE.

Thus, if China demands (as it does) that GE produce in and transfer technology to China as a condition of doing business there, Immelt may conclude that, in view of the potential future importance of China's market, he has no choice as the chairman of GE but to comply. This is especially true in view of the fact that China is not a democracy in which, as it does in the United States, GE has big political influence. Nor is it a society with a rule of law under which GE can protest unfair treatment.

But however sensible acceptance of Chinese conditions may be from a GE perspective, it makes no sense from an American perspective, especially because the Chinese conditions are significantly in violation of Chinese commitments to the World Trade Organization and to the United States.

So the question is whether Immelt can serve two masters -- GE and the United States -- equally well? And that leads to the second problem which is the likely evolution of a least common denominator attempt at serving both masters which ultimately leaves the United States sucking air. In fact, you can already see that happening. Just look at Immelt's article -- How to Keep America Competitive -- in the Jan. 21 Washington Post.

There Immelt calls for more Free Trade Agreements like the one just negotiated with South Korea and for more innovation. These suggestions are just motherhood and the flag bromides with the exception that, unlike motherhood and the flag, they are demonstrably insufficient. Sure, just about everyone is for free trade in the abstract, but in reality we have done free trade agreement after free trade agreement over the past sixty years and our trade deficit and the erosion of American manufacturing have only gotten worse. By the same token, we have been by far the leading source of innovation over the past sixty years, but that has not stopped the erosion of our position even in high tech industries.

So there must be a lot more that we need to do or to stop doing. But, for as long as he is chairman of GE, Immelt is unlikely to address that question, especially, for example, if it suggests something like not doing more free trade agreements.

So here's my big idea. Immelt should just step down from the chairmanship of
GE and devote himself to revitalizing America. Look, the guy is already rich by the standards of all but a few billionaires like Warrant Buffet and Bill Gates and he's never going to be as rich as them anyhow. Moreover, fifty or a hundred years from now no one is going to care what happened to GE and no one is going to know Immelt's name if he serves out his time at GE. But fifty or a hundred years from now people are going to care what happened to America. And if Immelt can really do something to turn the country around and get it back on track, he'll be on Mount Rushmore -- at least figuratively if not physically.

So how about it Jeff?  For the good of the country?