Posted by: Jeff | February 8, 2011

Still More Questions Than Answers in Egypt

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

As protests in Egypt enter a third week, the future of the country remains unclear.  Late last week, it looked as if violence might ignite an undercurrent of hostility to the regime, prompting protestors to fight back against the increasingly strong-armed resistance of Mubarak apparatchiks and plainclothed thugs.  Images on the BBC and Al-Jazeera showed widespread fighting in Cairo, as tanks and helicopters circled crowds of people throwing rocks and using clubs in the midst of tear gas.

Two weeks ago the magnitude and resoluteness of the protests seemed overwhelming, leading many – including President Obama – to begin writing an obituary for the Mubarak regime.  Yet Mubarak is still in power, having offered only minor concessions (a new Vice President, a promise to not run in September elections) and steadfastly refused to abdicate power or leave the country.

The third week, then, feels like an impasse.  Mubarak has invited key dissidents – including the heretofore banished Muslim Brotherhood – for talks about reform.  Reports are that attendees left skeptically optimistic about the prospects for democratization in Egypt, but the fact is that protests continue to fester, leaving Egypt’s political future still very much in question.

With so few answers about Egypt’s future, as well as the meaning of these protests for the rest of the world, let’s take a look at some of the remaining questions.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

  • What will be the outcome of the situation in Egypt?

The most likely outcome has changed over the course of the past two weeks, and may continue to change as events unfold in Cairo.  What once looked like an inevitable Mubarak ouster now appears to be more complex.  So let’s go over some scenarios that appear unlikely or remain possible at this stage.

Regime crackdown: unlikely.  While it may once have been conceivable that the Egyptian regime might use outright brutality to curtail protests, that now appears to be an unlikely outcome.  The large degree of scrutiny of actions thus far, as well as the explicit warning from President Obama and others that future aid and recognition of legitimacy is contingent upon a peaceful response both help in keeping the Egyptian army in check.  Mubarak has little to gain from violence, which would weaken his regime’s legitimacy even as it beats back dissent.  Outright violence could also galvanize international allies against the regime, both in the West and throughout the Middle East, as other authoritarian regimes keep one eye on placating their own people.

Covert resistance: probable.  We began to see last week a marked increase in counter-protests and scuffles within the crowds.  These were led not by uniformed police or military men, who largely sat by and watched, but by plainclothed men amongst the protestors.  Allegations are widespread that these men are plainclothed police officers or Mubarak henchmen, coaxed into fanning the flames of violence in an effort to de-legitimize what have thus far been remarkably peaceful protests.  Such a move removes culpability from the Mubarak regime, granting them plausible deniability and cover to condemn protestors themselves for violent acts.  Under this scenario, the Mubarak regime could position to receive international support for a stronger response under the auspice of restoring the peace.  This is similar to the Iranian response to protests in the summer of 2009, where the regime pointed to crowd violence as cause for police brutality.

Permanent political stalemate: possible.  One possible outcome in Egypt is no outcome at all.  As protests lose urgency and Mubarak continues to exercise power, it is very possible that the moment to affect real political reform has passed and that the protests will begin to dwindle to a size at which they can be marginalized.  This scenario buys Mubarak time to consolidate power before promised elections, at which point he will face a choice: hold elections as promised and stand aside, or violate his word and either stand for election or postpone elections altogether.

Haphazard reform: possible.  Preliminary talks between Mubarak and opposition groups purportedly discussed reform measures that could be implemented to encourage true democratization in Egypt.  While no agreements have yet been reached about the shape or scope of such reform, there are many questions about how any reform would actually be implemented.  The Mubarak regime extends much further than the Presidency.  Though Mubarak himself has only held power since the 1980s, the regime is far more entrenched in the Egyptian political culture.  The nexus of political and corporate interests in Egypt have co-existed in support of this regime since the 1950s, seeking and gaining concessions and favors from a regime with a complete monopoly on power.  In addition to the figureheads, there are a multitude of autocrats, legislators, and businessmen with personal interest in the continuation of the Mubarak regime.  Who controls the reform process, whether within the institutional structure of Egyptian politics or outside – is likely to play a significant role in the shape of institutions and processes to come.

Abdication and chaos: not likely, but still possible.  At one point, it seemed likely that Mubarak would flee the country.  As protests swelled and questions about the loyalty of the military and other Mubarak allies swirled, many voiced the opinion that Mubarak’s days in Egypt were numbered, and that if he didn’t leave the country now he would never have the chance.  That pivotal moment likely passed without abdication, but the possibility remains that Mubarak’s power could again wane, necessitating that he flee the country for lack of control or fear of personal safety.  This scenario is the most open-ended of those discussed, with many questions about what sort of actor would fill the political void left by Mubarak.  Would another regime ally step in and assume power?  Would the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as the dominant actor within the anti-Mubarak dissidents?  Would the army simply assume control and institute a junta in Egypt?  Whatever the outcome, the struggle for control in an Egypt suddenly abandoned by Mubarak would be uncertain and quite possibly bloody.

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

  • What affect does unrest have for the Middle East peace process?

This is another question with no certain answer.  One thing that is certain is that the outcome in Egypt is likely to have serious repercussions not only for the peace process, but for Israeli security in general.  The Mubarak-Israel peace has been a cornerstone of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for decades, and has generally ensured the security of Israel’s southern and western border, allowing the Israeli military more confidence in deploying resources against Lebanon and Syria in the north.  Without that security guarantee, Israel could once again find itself surrounded on all sides by enemies, a position that many conservatives within the Israeli regime would likely use to adopt a more reactively militant stance.

The Muslim Brotherhood, though heretofore powerless, has publicly condemned the existence of Israel, and pledged support to those seeking to erase the country as a political entity.  This is reason for real concern in Israel, and is likely to destabilize security throughout the region.

  • What does Egypt say about the rest of the region?

Before protests began in Egypt, they wracked the country of Tunisia, eventually forcing the abdication of President Ben Ali.  Immediately thereafter, word of protests emerged from Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, and Egypt.  Thus far only Egypt has really galvanized into a widespread popular movement, but already Arab regimes from Jordan to Syria have announced reform measures.  Jordan’s President Hussein dissolved his cabinet, and promised to replace much of his regime amidst calls for democratic elections.  Even in Syria, where political control is particularly concentrated in President Assad, reforms have been promised ahead of real protest.

As Egypt continues to simmer, opposition has become more vocal in places like Yemen and Sudan, leading some to speculate about widespread Arab liberalization throughout the region.

While metaphors and historical analogies are always problematic, it is worth mentioning that in the past, political reform has spread regionally.  Independence movements in Africa gained momentum after Ghana achieved independence in 1957, and Soviet states separated from the USSR en masse after Lithuania re-asserted its independence in 1990.  Likewise, much of the Middle East achieved independence from European imperialism at the same time.  This fact has led some, like historian Basheer Nafi, to speculate about a second wave of Arab liberalization: “In the first wave, the Arabs liberated themselves from colonial powers and foreign domination. I think now, the very heart of the Arab world, the backbone of the Arab world, is leading the move towards freedom and democracy and human rights.

It is too early to tell whether the rest of the Middle East will respond to events in Egypt or Tunisia, much less whether the outcome of unrest in those countries will result in true and lasting democratic reform.  But it is unquestionably true that the events in Tunisia and Egypt have resonated far beyond the borders of those two countries, with both the regimes and peoples of the Middle East all taking notice.

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