Friday, February 4, 2011


While much of the Middle East is in turmoil the focus is on Egypt, the largest Arab nation with a population of 80 million. Following on the heels of the popular overthrow of the autocratic regime in Tunisia, the Facebook/Twitter revolution commenced mostly by disaffected youth in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez threatens to spread still further to Jordan, Yemen and other North African states, with consequences of enormous importance to the stability, character and political alignments of the region.

Simply put, the first step is the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has announced that he will not run for reelection in the Fall election cycle, thus ending 30 years of autocratic control. It is however, highly unlikely that he will be able to remain in office that long. Mubarak is the personal symbol of years of repression, corruption and economic hardship and the pressures for his immediate removal are enormous. Mubarak’s only hope to remain in office until September is that the uprising will exhaust itself and the virtual shut down of government services and the economy, including food and fuel distribution will cause enough hardship to send the revolution into temporary abeyance. Thus the situation is still in flux and unpredictable. Some facts however describe the context of the events and offer some areas to watch closely.

The role of the Egyptian army is critical. All of the post -monarchy (1952) heads of government have come from the military; Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak. The newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman is an army general. The military enjoys the general good will of the Egyptian people, which it has further strengthened by it's announced policy of not using force against the popular uprising. The military can be expected to take positions to protect its institutional integrity and status. Thus, it will probably be the generals who push Mubarak to an early departure. It will also be the military that will fill the political vacuum during the expected transitional period ending in reform of the existing political structures and the election of a new president in September of this year if not sooner.

The world watches and wonders what the nature of the new Egyptian government will be. This is critical since the current system is designed to support the essentially autocratic powers of the president. This will inevitably change. The legislative branch is divided into two bodies; the Advisory Council which lacks actual law making powers and the People's Assembly. While the Mubarak government has allowed six political parties to run for seats (including Independents), the president's party, the National Democratic Party (NDP) currently holds 419 of the 518 seats in the Assembly, a result accomplished through coercion, unfair election laws and fraud. When Mubarak goes, there will likely be popular pressure to hold early legislative elections since the next Council is not scheduled to be elected until 2013 and the next Assembly not until 2015. When these elections occur the NDP which is identified with Mubarak will undoubtedly suffer considerable losses. The question then is what parties, new or old, will dominate the new legislature and be handed the responsibility for reform and who will be the popular choice to succeed Mubarak as President?

Typically, when electoral systems are liberalized in nations without a history of democratic representation, a proliferation of narrowly focused political parties are created. This creates fragmentation in legislative bodies and inertia, if not gridlock. Currently in Egypt, the formation of political parties requires the approval of the government i.e. the executive branch. An effective and more democratic alternative is that adopted by several of the world's parliamentary systems which is establishing a minimum level of electoral support expressed as a mathematical percentage of the vote, for representation in the legislative body. Some feature like this should probably be considered.

Currently, the popular uprising lacks a single charismatic leader, or a single dominant political organization or party. Competition for a leadership position and creation of new parties will be chaotic. The individual currently most visible in terms of presidential prospects is Mohammed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei, while internationally prominent is reportedly considered an "outsider" by many Egyptians since he has not resided in Egypt in many years and seems "disconnected" from the people and the roots of the current popular uprising.

With Mubarak gone and the NDP in disrepute, that would leave the Muslim Brotherhood as the major public organization and quasi-political party. The Muslim Brotherhood is acknowledged by its supporters and identified by its detractors as an "Islamist" i.e. religiously fundamentalist organization. It was established in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna in response to what he believed was Islam and Islamic societies wandering from their original path and becoming more secularized and undisciplined. Al-Banna was also offended by Western secularization and what he viewed as decadence.

There is much disagreement today on the modern nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and its goals. President Mubarak saw the organization as a fundamentalist threat and harshly suppressed it. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood survived as a social/religious movement oriented towards peaceful reform and political/legislative strategies. Opponents of the Brotherhood point to early pronouncements and doctrines which speak of "jihad" against colonialism and Zionism. These critics also point to connections between the Brotherhood and Hamas, the political militia in control of Gaza which engages in terrorist activities against Israel and still maintains the destruction of Israel as its founding principal.
No one but the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood can settle this issue, but with an estimated 20-30% support in the Egyptian population and the lack of a competing political organization, the Brotherhood is sure to play an important role in any reformed government.

The regional importance of Egypt cannot be overstated and lies within the context of its modern history since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Since then Egypt has participated in, and indeed facilitated four general wars by Arab states against the state of Israel; 1948,1956, 1967, 1973. Without Egypt's participation these wars would not have been possible, both because of the geography of the conflicts and Egypt's dominant, military. The possibility of a fifth Arab-Israel war was eliminated when, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which led to his assassination in 1981, an act in which some argue that the Muslim Brotherhood was complicit. Since then Egypt has played an important, though often unsuccessful role, in the ongoing negotiations between Israel and other regional states and between competing political forces in the Palestinian territories.

Thus the implications of this momentous change in the Middle East and the potential for further uprisings in other nations in the area are stark. An abandonment of the Egyptian/Israeli peace treaty or a change in Egypt’s cooperation in anti-terrorist efforts including the blockade against weapons transfers to Gaza, would constitute a major threat to Israel’s national security and would inevitably bring a higher level of U.S. involvement. A reorientation of Egypt away from the West would also lead to a higher level of Iranian influence in the region and increased Islamist pressure on Jordan, the West’s other ally and neighbor to both Egypt and Israel.

The major political force within Egypt thus will remain the army which will likely not allow itself to become a tool of Islamist militancy and is unlikely to risk open hostilities with Israel. The army also has essentially become a client of the U.S. by the fact that since the Camp David Accords which produced the Egypt/Israel peace treaty, the army has been the recipient of billions in U.S. military assistance while the government has received billions more in economic assistance. With a heavy component of U.S. made military equipment (F-16 fighter aircraft and M1A1 tanks) the Egyptian military cannot afford a political schism with the U.S. and a cut off of essential replacement parts. The army therefore represents the major, if not only, point of access for the Obama administration to influence the current situation and the future nature of Egyptian politics. This influence must be exercised through back channels and the Obama administration needs to be very careful not to send mixed messages to the Egyptian military through public posturing. Still, these circumstances are not an absolute guarantee of continuing political cooperation should an Islamist government take control, as the history of U.S. relations and military cooperation in Iran demonstrate.

Egypt has a chance for political and social liberalization but it will be messy and require time to achieve long term stability. Egypt lacks the religious, tribal and sectarian divisions that plague Iraq’s quest to establish a democratic system but a Pew Research poll indicates that fully 95% of Egyptians believe that “Islam should play a role in the country’s politics.” Thus a truly secular government and system of laws is out of the question. How this will manifest itself in both domestic and foreign policy is the most important question for the near future.

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