The Egyptian Revolution

29 January, 2011

The events of the past week have prompted me to break my now inexcusably long absence from blogging. In case you haven’t been following the extraordinary news out of Egypt, massive demonstrations nationwide which started on Jan. 25 reached a tipping point yesterday, prompting the deployment of the army into several Egyptian cities. At least 50 people have been confirmed killed (that number is quickly escalating), several hundred more injured, and most likely thousands arrested. After several days of conspicuous absence on the matter, Hosni Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people at around 2350Z, delivering a Kafka-esque speech in which the basic gist was, “O Egyptian people! I have heard your request for me to step down, and in response, I have fired everyone but myself!” Obviously, this didn’t go over well with the Egyptian people, as the protests have only gained momentum. The army is now on the streets of Cairo, Suez, and our former home, Alexandria.

To say the least, the situation in Egypt is highly dynamic, unstable, and however this pans out, will have profound effects throughout all of Egyptian society, to say nothing of the region at large. Let’s take a look at things from a variety of different perspectives, starting with the street:

  1. The single most important variable at play here is upon whose side the army will intervene. The Egyptian army is a strangely constructed institution- for one, the senior leadership and a large portion of the officer corps is reportedly loyal to Mubarak, because he’s given them any military toy they could ask for. (Usually paid for by our American tax dollars, by the way.) However, as Egypt uses conscription to staff the army, it’s also an institution that almost all Egyptian men have experience serving with. This shared experience could prompt a sympathizing with the protesters. Additionally, people were greeting the Egyptian army throughout the streets- in its nearly sixty year history, the Egyptian army has never opened fire on a crowd of Egyptian protesters. While heretofore the generals have been loyal to Mubarak, it doesn’t take a Patton to know that when the other side has the initiative, it’s time to consider differing tactical alliances. The army will most likely go with whoever looks like they’re going to win.
  2. There’s no way Mubarak can come back from this. His absence on the protests was absolutely laughable, and his silence even as the headquarters of his National Democratic Party burned was telling. It demonstrates a dictator out of touch with the plight of his people, and probably being fed faulty information by sycophantic advisers. The political reforms that he PROMISED to adopt this time around are well and good, but they are the demands made by the opposition YEARS ago. These latest demonstrations aren’t about reform- they’re about Mubarak stepping down. His speech, which rivaled many SNL opening monologues in its comedic value, will not do anything to stop the protests, and will likely make them worse. I especially loved the bit about how it was because of all of Egypt’s political freedom that the demonstrations happened.

Now I’d like to look at things from a “what if Mubarak falls” perspective:

  1. The most preferable outcome would be Mubarak’s peaceful resignation and transit from Egypt, followed by a temporary government until elections can be held to establish a new Peoples’ Assembly and Presidential office. However, this presents numerous other challenges, namely of questions of leadership. Mubarak staffed the most important posts in government with NDP loyalists in a fashion similar to former Tunisian President Ben Ali and Saddam Hussein. Consequently, the Egyptian bureaucracy is dependent on the NDP in order to function. This leads to questions: Who would be the best interim president? An NDP functionary or technocrat? A general? Would the Egyptian people rise up against the NDP in a similar fashion to the anti-RCD backlash after the Tunisian revolution? Will the Egyptian opposition parties be willing to work with an NDP without Mubarak at the helm? These are fairly speculative questions, but they’re important ones to answer if Egypt ousts Papa Hosni.
  2. The salience of the Egyptian opposition is another critical variable. One of the small benefits of being brutally suppressed by a dictator for 30 years is that your role in the opposition doesn’t have to be about what you’re for so much as it’s what you’re against. Egypt’s opposition is unified and defined insofar as they’re all against Mubarak and the NDP, but an actual stated cooperative policy platform is elusive. Will the religious Muslim Brotherhood party be able to get along with the secular parties? How will the opposition react if it now has to govern?
  3. The Muslim Brotherhood’s true attitude towards democratization will be tested. Ostensibly, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood of today is not your father’s Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve seemingly embraced democratic ideals, although many speculate if their attitude towards democracy is contingent on their popularity within Egyptian society and a calculated assessment of how important democracy is to achieving their political objectives. There’s also a conflict between the Old Guard of the Brotherhood, who are often viewed as more radical than its newer and younger members. The Egyptian people have overwhelmingly supported the Muslim Brotherhood because of a widespread religious revival, but also because they took advantage of Mubarak’s neglect of the poor to set up social services and establish patronage. If there’s one thing I want to be absolutely clear about: the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a resoundingly pro-American or pro-Israeli organization at all, but the modern Brotherhood IS NOT the political wing of Al-Qaeda. There’s differences of several orders of magnitude between today’s Egyptian Islamist movement and the transnational jihadists of Al-Qaeda, but that’s best left for another blog.

If Mubarak doesn’t fall, it’s likely that Egypt is in for some extremely dark days. I would expect the opposition parties to be completely decimated by the arrests and “disappearances” for which the Egyptian mubahis (secret police) are infamous. The international community would likely suspend aid to Egypt in that case, decimating the slowly liberalizing economy even further and leading to an increase in poverty, desperation and making an even more violent showdown inevitable.

And from a regional perspective:

  1. The United States finds itself yet again between a rock and a hard place in the Middle East, having put our support behind a strongman dictator in order to protect regional interests instead of upholding the democratic aspirations of the people. Whether or not our policy decisions have helped more than hurt in a long-term sense is a debate I’d rather not get into here, but the fact of the matter is we’ve supported Mubarak for 30 years as he cracked down on his people, generally ignoring his actions while making watery calls for democracy. Equally telling was the usage of American-made teargas against demonstrators– while we can’t control how people use the weapons we give them, it’s never good PR to have “Made in the USA” printed on the devices you’re using to suppress the populace. The cheapest and most likely strategy for the US to take would be to provide the next Egyptian government with a similar amount of aid that Mubarak enjoyed to keep the peace with Israel, deter religious extremism, and hold credible elections every now and then. Of course, it’d probably be much better if we re-examined our strategic posture in the Middle East in light of recent developments in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt, but that remains unlikely for political reasons here in the US.
  2. Israel’s probably extremely nervous right now. One of the few successes in Mubarak’s otherwise stagnant reign was that Egypt has honored its commitments to peace with Israel, and I’ve often wondered if a truly democratic Egypt would have signed a peace treaty with Israel to begin with. While I don’t anticipate Egypt to start sending tanks across the Suez Canal again regardless of what comes next, I do think that Israel is going to be very cautious in its dealings with any new Egyptian government. Keep in mind that the Egyptian army’s entire battle doctrine is fighting another way with Israel, and they also happen to have one of the best equipped armies in the Middle East next to Israel.

The situation in Egypt is amazing to watch. My time there convinced me of the plight of everyday Egyptians as they struggled in a stagnating system of institutional neglect, corruption, and authoritarianism. If ever there were a people that deserved to be free, it is the Egyptians. The outcome of this event is far from clear, although it certainly seems to be trending in a certain direction. I, for one, stand with the Egyptian people and hope that a new, democratic government representative of the people is formed quickly. Although the coming days and weeks bring some huge challenges, the potential rewards for Egypt are too great to be ignored.

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