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February 1, 2011 5:21 pm

What’s happening in Egypt?

avatar by David Bratslavsky

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Protests in Egypt. Credit: USIP.

The week long protests in Cairo have led to the resignation of President Mubarak‘s cabinet and the appointment of a Vice President and Prime Minister.   This shakeup can be interpreted in different ways.

1.  Mubarak knows his rule is over and is setting up a graceful exit while trying to avoid anarchy.

2.  By appointing military men long part of of his inner circle, Mubarak is signaling that his regime is here to stay. The VP, Omar Suleiman, is a former general and head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service since 1993.  The PM, Ahmed Shafik is a former air force commander (like Mubarak) and headed Egypt’s Civil Aviation since 2002. With these appointments, Mubarak is also sending a message to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that a strongman policy against the group will continue.

3.  The appointments are necessities of internal politics, imposed by the military as a condition for taking over crowd control and protecting Mubarak. A similar scenario happened in the ‘bread riots‘ of 1977 when the army agreed to step in to quell protests only after then-President Anwar Sadat agreed to reinstate bread subsidies. The military has been a political institution and the bedrock of the Egyptian regime since a military coup overthrew King Farouk I to establish the republic in 1952.  As part of the military establishment, Suleiman and Shafik are now more in charge than Mubarak himself.

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What are the consequences of the protests?

The Muslim Brotherhood is not behind the demonstrations but has joined in and will look to take advantage of the turmoil in order to position themselves as the leading alternative to Mubarak’s regime. They are the best organized political opposition group with strong grassroots support propagated mostly through mosques and religious institutions. Their adoption of the freedom agenda and support for democracy reflect the calculated sense that a popular vote will be to their benefit. Similarly, Islamists espoused democracy while riding popular sentiment to power in Iran’s 1979 revolution only to do away with it once in control. Should the Brotherhood gain significant power, their moderation and commitment to democratic ideals are likely to evaporate as they advance their agenda. They espouse sharia law and have strong anti-American and anti-Israel undertones. Egypt’s alliance with the United States, peace treaty with Israel, and embargo against Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza) are likely to disintegrate under the Brotherhood’s leadership.

However, the Brotherhood’s ascendancy to power is not a forgone conclusion.  While their historic 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections solidified the group’s force, their strength may be tempered.  The secular national army has so far avoided clashing with the people, generating some sense of solidarity. The military establishment may still be able to assuage public sentiment and maintain power, at least as part of an interim government. The longer the chaos continues, the more the Egyptian middle class will seek stability, which only the army can provide. But it is not clear how the military can diffuse the situation without arranging for the departure of Mubarak and either promising fair elections or enacting sweeping reforms, none of which is yet to happen.

The secular opposition is strong but diffuse. Mohammad El Baradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of UN’s IAEA, returned to the country last year and is positioning himself as the leader of the pro-democracy opposition. Since El Baradei is a public persona in largely amorphous protests, the opposition (including the Muslim Brotherhood) is uniting around him. However, he has been out of the country for too long to have established deep support and may be seen as opportunistic and too ‘intellectual’ to generate wide appeal.  The Brotherhood sees him as an internationally acceptable figure that adds legitimacy to the opposition.  They will not be as accomodating when jockeying for real power.

The ideal scenario for the United States is anything that tempers the tide of Islamism and keeps Egypt in a pro-American alliance. But any such solution must also been seen as legitimate by Egyptians.  It is unlikely that the new military establishment will be able to accomplish this short of allowing for real elections.  The US must therefore work to ensure fair elections while giving the secular pro-American (or at least not anti-American) voice the financial means and tacit support to organize. This does not mean the US should bet on one horse in this race. Rather, it should quietly align itself with all groups that would maintain good bilateral relations. This includes the current military establishment, especially Suleiman (a graduate of the U.S. Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg).

The US can use its limited leverage to privately urge Mubarak out of government in an orderly, dignified manner. Other Arab governments, autocratic and with similar problems, will be judging US reliability based on how Mubarak is treated in his time of peril. As a new alternative develops, the US, together with the international community, should insist on the development of strong civil institutions that would temper extremism and extend democratic reforms beyond one election.

Flying from New York a few days ago, I met a lovely Egyptian woman on her way back from Cairo. She pointed out, “Amazing what change a few days can bring to a timeless place like Egypt.” Indeed.  Having spent a summer in Egypt in 2006, I have fond memories of a welcoming people.  My sincere hope is that the final outcome of this chaos ends with little additional bloodshed and a positive path forward, first and foremost for the Egyptian people.


David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem.  He may be reached at contact@streetsmartpolitics.com .
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  • James P

    Because without reform there is revolution. Revolutions often seek extreme “solutions” for festering problems. This is precisely the type of extremism that we need to avoid.

  • Haley

    Why wpuld you want to pressure them to reform?

  • James P

    Donovan – neither. We should pressure the existing governments to reform.

  • Donovan

    I’m wondering what people think. Is it good that Mubarak is gone or are we sad to see him go? He’s a US ally and the alternative is the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood. But democratic values, which is something we stand for, were disregarded for the entirety of his rule. Now that Mubarak is gone, democracy in the Middle East just might score another point.

    So, what’s better – a pro-Western autocracy or anti-Western democracy?

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