The shock waves of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation have just started to roll across the Middle East, but in Egypt the upheaval has barely begun. The country now embarks on what the protesters in Tahrir square hope will be a transition to a true, civilian-led democracy. In the meantime, Egypt is headed for a period of military rule in some form, with the ultimate intentions of the armed forces leadership still in doubt. Will the military act to effect the “genuine transition” now demanded by the Obama Administration and the protesters themselves? Or will it seek first and foremost to perpetuate some form of authoritarian regime dressed in democratic clothing in order to secure its privileges and increase its power relative to the rest of the state?
Constitutional questions also abound. Among them is whether the provisions governing elections will remain in force—rules that Carnegie Endowment scholar Nathan Brown noted in Foreign Policy.com “were designed with one purpose in mind: to allow the existing leadership to designate the president.” Such an outcome would hobble political parties seeking to field candidates for the presidency, and would likely prove deeply unsatisfactory to the crowds in Tahrir. The military’s suspension of the constitution, dissolution of parliament and imposition of martial law may have answered some of these questions temporarily—and have been hailed by many of the protesters as necessary steps to get rid of the remnants of the Mubarak regime—but they are bound to resurface as the process of drafting new laws begins.
Worries about Egypt’s political future are rife too, especially since no one person or party has truly emerged to speak for the opposition. The fear among many Arab and Western observers is that the Muslim Brotherhood will leverage its superior organizational capabilities to seize power through the ballot box and turn Egypt into a hostile theocracy dedicated to spreading revolution and negating the peace treaty with Israel. Then there is the question of Egypt’s political prisoners, thousands of whom are still held and tortured by the state. What will become of them? And what of Egypt’s hated emergency law, which allows detention without charge and would provide a perfect tool for the government to avenge itself upon protest leaders? The February 11 communiqué from the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces in which the military appeared to take charge suggested it would be cast aside—but only after the protesters go home.
These uncertainties and the potential effects of the Egyptian revolution elsewhere in the region have set off claxons in many Arab capitals, not to mention Jerusalem. No government can be absolutely certain that the winds of change won’t blow their way, as Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Algeria have found out. While some countries possess economic and cultural advantages that may inhibit Egypt-like outpourings of popular anger, no Arab ruler can look upon his “street” quite the same way again.
It is safe to say that not much is safe to say. The speed of events in Tunisia, and now Egypt, has outstripped the pace of government policy deliberations and the musings of expert commentators. Many other questions and unexpected turns of events will arise in the coming days, and the situation will remain fluid. But it seems a few things are clear.
First, the ability of the United States to influence events has just increased with the apparent assumption of control by Egypt’s military. The U.S.-Egyptian military relationship provides the United States with a significant lever to encourage democratic transformation. America provides $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Cairo; even more important, Egypt depends on the United States for advanced weapons systems such as the F-16, Apache helicopters equipped with advanced Hellfire missiles, Harpoon Bloc-2 anti-ship missiles, and tank kits for Egyptian M1A1 production facilities. Not only are these systems vital to Egypt’s defensive capabilities, they are seen as crucial to the prestige of the Egyptian military in a region where other U.S. allies receive the most advanced weapons the United States has to offer. Moreover, Egypt is fully integrated into the U.S. logistics supply chain, which would make it impossible to operate these systems for long without American support. Finally, the United States has built a network of strong personal and professional relationships with the Egyptian armed forces from the top ranks of the officer corps down to more junior levels, through educational programs, exchanges, and training exercises such as the massive biennial Bright Star exercise. These relationships provide a bond with Egypt’s armed forces that no other country possesses.
This is the payoff, at just the right moment, for 30 years of U.S. military assistance to Egypt: the Egyptian military will be loathe to jeopardize this vital relationship by thwarting a transition to democracy or continuing to wield power indefinitely. The United States, which has been in close touch with Egyptian military leaders during the crisis, must use its enhanced influence to be very clear about what Egypt’s top officers should do now: announce that they will govern for a specific, limited period, the sole purpose of which is to oversee a transition to a full, civilianized democracy that respects human rights and ensure that free and fair elections are carried out peacefully. On this score, President Obama set just the right tone in his remarks from the White House on Friday, and Egypt’s ruling military council seems to have responded positively. As an added inducement, the United States could consider enhancements to the bilateral military relationship if the Egyptian military carries out this program and retrenchment if it does not.
The second point of clarity is that Arab rulers must seriously consider reforms of their own. It will no longer do to shuffle the cabinet every once in a while and make cosmetic changes to election laws. Meaningful reform and progress toward democracy is required at a measurable pace if instability is to be avoided. Fortunately, international partners stand ready to help, and mechanisms such as the Forum for the Future, the Bush-era multinational platform for engaging the region on reform, may prove useful. The Obama Administration should help revitalize the Forum and transform it into a real tool for manageable change as part of a strategic initiative to help Arab rulers help themselves and their people.
Third, the Arab states should get behind a democratic transition in Egypt with all the diplomatic tools they possess; the ravaged Egyptian economy will need their assistance as well. They should not seek to undermine the process or step back and pretend it will all go away. If they do, relations between the next Egyptian government and the Arabs are likely to be difficult, and regional capitals may soon be engaged in their own “who lost Egypt?” debate.
Nor should the Arab countries hold back for fear of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. Like other established Egyptian parties (and the United States itself) the Brothers were caught off guard by the uprising and had to scramble to catch up. The demonstrations were overwhelmingly secular and pro-democracy in nature; few if any Islamist slogans were brandished or shouted by the crowds in Tahrir. Moreover, the Brotherhood does not command anything like a majority of favorable public opinion. A new poll conducted by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy concluded that the Brotherhood’s overall approval rating among the Egyptian public was just 15 percent, and that its leaders would scrape out a bare one percent of the vote in a presidential straw poll. (Arab League Secretary General and former Foreign Minister Amre Moussa would come in first, with 26% of the hypothetical vote.)
While Arab rulers may, justifiably, worry that helping Egyptian democracy could expose them to increased demands from their own people, they have little choice: change is on the doorstep and they cannot afford to remain alienated from Cairo or Washington, which has cast its lot with forces of democratic change in Egypt. That would be a recipe for further strategic instability, with Iran poised to reap the benefits.
Finally, the role of Iraq in the region has assumed new importance. With the future course of Egypt unclear, and its ability to play its traditional leadership role in doubt for now, Arab states should look at Baghdad with fresh eyes. For all its problems, Iraq is a relatively stable democracy with vast prospects, not least of which is the fact that it sits atop what might prove to be the world’s largest petroleum reserves. Regional governments must cast aside their reservations about the Shi’a-dominated government (which is in fact pluralistic), do more to draw closer to Baghdad, and encourage Iraq to assume a greater role in Arab affairs. Assisting Iraq politically and economically will help avert the instability most Arab capitals fear by enabling Iraq to serve as a check on Iranian ambitions, assume at least part of the role previously played by Egypt, and provide an example to the discontented in their own countries of how a democracy can be constructed and embraced in the heart of the Arab world.
On February 11, 1979, the Shah of Iran fled his country and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution was complete. With the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the world is faced with an even more momentous shift in global politics. Egypt, the United States, the Arabs and the entire international community have a common responsibility to see that the Egyptian revolution, unlike that in Iran, points the way to a more democratic, stable and prosperous future for Egypt and the Arab world.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.