Washington’s Next Move in Egypt

The United States should encourage the Egyptian military to remove President Mubarak and ease the country toward democratic elections.

Contemporary history of the past century has shown that popular revolutions, however exciting in the initial stages, can turn out to be very unpredictable in the end.

The Iranian Revolution against the Shah of Iran was quite similar in composition to the protests that are engulfing Egypt today — broad swaths of the general population pouring onto the streets demanding the overthrow of an oppressive and dictatorial system. Yet when the shah left, a group of radical Islamists under the wing of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini managed to hijack the process, monopolize the opposition, and set up the regime that we now call the Islamic Republic of Iran.

With this precedent in mind, can we actually predict what will happen when the unrest in Egypt is long over?

The short answer is no. A rebellion is sporadic in nature and difficult to quantify with any accuracy or vigor, especially when the rebellion is still developing in front of our eyes. But we can nonetheless make some assumptions as to how Egypt’s political system will respond in the short term. A few general options come to mind.

The most obvious, but least plausible, is that Hosni Mubarak will crush the protests, jail the most visible dissidents as an example to all demonstrators and retain his iron grip on Egyptian society.

Although heartbreaking for the millions of Egyptians dreaming for reform, this is an option that would actually be well received by those crafting America’s geopolitical strategy. Mubarak has been immensely important to Washington’s Middle East policy for the past thirty years. In fact, the Mubarak regime has agreed on almost every major American initiative in the region (except for the war in Iraq), from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the containment of Iran; from the isolation of Hamas to pressure on Lebanon’s Hezbollah. With such a great track record, a surviving Mubarak could give Washington at least a temporary sigh of relief.

The polar opposite of another Mubarak term would be the complete overthrow of the Egyptian president and the total dismemberment of his ruling National Democratic Party. Most Egyptians would love to see this happen and for very good reason. Egypt under the NDP has struggled mightily in terms of economic development. The state itself has sustained an impressive growth rate of 5 percent, but the money has not made its way down to the families that need it most. Indeed, some researchers estimate that forty of Egypt’s eighty million people live at or below the United Nations poverty line.

There is also a very real possibility that the abrupt departure of Mubarak and his party would usher in a degree of chaos and confusion. This is precisely what is happening in Tunisia today, where different factions of the political opposition (the secularists, nationalists, communists and Islamists) are struggling to caste aside their ideological differences. If this same confusion were to occur in a post-Mubarak Egypt, Washington and Europe could find this scenario especially alarming. If people are unwilling to compromise on the most basic principles for the way forward, democracy will be seen more as a disorderly nuisance than a legitimate form of government.

These two scenarios are scary, both for Egyptians and for the Obama Administration. Luckily, both represent extremes that are unlikely to materialize. Mubarak has lost so much credibility with the Egyptian people that his days in office are numbered, even if his regime is able to quell the protests for a few more months. If Mubarak’s regime were to collapse soon however, it is also unlikely that anarchy would envelope the entire country. The military is too well embedded within Egyptian society for the institution to take a passive role should violence hit the streets.

Therefore, what the United States should plan for is a hybrid of these two extremes, something between Mubarak crushing all opposition and the Egyptian state collapsing after his defeat or departure. What American officials may be privately hoping for is an internal coup d’état where the generals squeeze Mubarak out of power for the sake of state stability. What could result is a government dominated by the military for a few months until presidential elections are held in the next six months.

In other words, a peaceful transition orchestrated by the military would be the best policy for the United States to endorse and actively encourage — if the military lets go of the reigns and plays a constructive role when elections are scheduled.

There already are some negative sentiments toward Mubarak in parts of the armed forces. If the protests grow in the next day or two, or if Mubarak makes another embarrassing television display, the Free Officers Corps just may give its aging leader the boot.