2.03.2011

Some thoughts on the future in Egypt

There's been plenty of ink spilled on Egypt in the last week, and I've been watching the situation unfold with fascination -- this could very well be another Berlin Wall moment for the world.

But it's still not a guarantee, indeed the situation is far from sure. Mubarak is already positioning himself as a unifying force in Egypt. It is deeply significant that the military has committed itself to not harming the demonstrators, but in the face of growing violence, that stance may change.

Mubarak has here a moment to break the protests that the Soviet Union squandered. Had his position been truly weak, the military would have moved to oust him much more quickly that it currently is. The architecture of the Soviet satellites was so rotted from within by 1989 that it was tremendously more vulnerable to mass protests. Mubarak was still strong enough at the beginning of the demonstrations that he could spend a week coordinating his supporters to counter the demonstrators.

But as violence ratchets up, Mubarak may look like an increasingly good option, at least in the short term. And if he can stay in office even through the end of his term, two possibilities arise: 1.) the opposition will become dispirited, and cracks may grow up between the various parties involved, greatly weakening the opposition's impact on Egyptian politics; and 2.) Mubarak will be able to position one of his more moderate supporters into power with the backing of the military, allowing for essentially business as usual to continue.

Another double-edged sword is the multipolar nature of the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is, of course, the most visible member of the coalition, and deserves a few words. Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty put a fine roundup of the organization up at the beginning of the demonstrations; another is supplied by the Council on Foreign Relations. The growing concern is, of course, how it would handle Camp David Accords. Initially, the Brotherhood announced that they would uphold all international commitments, but seems to have softened on the issue, now committing only to put the deal to a popular referendum. The group's intentions remain unclear.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is far from ascendant, and to my understanding only attracts about 30% of the Egyptian population's support. That means that although it will be a factor in the elections, it is not the only group involved, and will be moderated against in a parliamentary system.

The worry is how the groups will work -- will they maintain the coalition cabinet that they've set up to guide the demonstrations and negotiate with the government, or will they splinter and fight for power in the wake of a successful revolution? The organizations seem committed to unity, but as with the Pakistani splintering off from India post-independence, worries about your erstwhile allies' intentions can prove problematic. If the secular forces -- which in many places through the protests have shown support for such groups as Egypt's Coptic Christians -- come to believe that the Brotherhood will work to suppress civil rights, real arguments could boil up. Egypt today is a different bag than Iran in 1979, but statements that preclude foreign governments from working with the Brotherhood could serve to build a wedge between these forces that would allow the Mubarak regime to take back control of the situation and keep itself in power for much longer than it should remain.