With President Hosni Mubarak clinging to power after eight days of unprecedented protests in Egypt, many observers are now predicting the imminent fall of his regime. A change in leadership would bring to end nearly three decades of uninterrupted rule and have significant implications for the region’s balance of power.
Marwan Muasher, Marina Ottaway, Michele Dunne, and Nathan Brown assess the latest developments in Egypt, evaluate Mubarak’s rule and potential successors, and explain what a new leader could mean for Egypt, the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the United States.
What is the situation in Egypt?
Brown: At this point, it is clear that the political system as it has been configured for the last half-century cannot survive. There is a strong and diffuse challenge from wide segments of Egyptian society and a regime that has no ability—and perhaps no willingness—to respond.
We are in the middle of an extremely difficult situation where the regime is clinging to the old ways of doing things and offering at best a mixture of mild steps with the possibility of heavy repression. That is not going to work for long.
Why did protests erupt?
Ottaway: Protests were sparked by a combination of economic and political reasons—but the dominant concern was undoubtedly political. Egyptians have long been faced with economic constraints, a lack of jobs, and a growing disparity between rich and poor, but there is a strong sense that the economic hardship was caused by the Mubarak regime. There is also a widespread belief that the government hasn’t done anything to remedy the situation.
We know what the underlying reasons for the uprising are, but it is more difficult to answer why the protests spread now—the conditions have existed in Egypt for twenty years. The upheaval in Tunisia, however, helped embolden Egyptians and demonstrated that a crowd can bring down a president. And protests in Egypt led to a crisis much faster than protests did in Tunisia.
What are the possible scenarios for how the unfolding events will play out?
Brown: The least likely outcome is for the regime to continue as is. Had the regime reacted more rapidly and subtly a week ago, it may have been able to placate the opposition with a pledge that Mubarak would not run again. But at this stage it is most likely that the regime will collapse or it will be significantly reconfigured.
The two leading possibilities over the short term are a soft coup led by the military or a broad-based opposition coalition that challenges the regime and offers to form an alternative leadership. In the case of the soft coup, the military might follow constitutional procedures or it might handpick a new leader. In the case of an opposition-led transition, there would be an interim leadership.
Both cases are unlikely to be permanent solutions. There will need to be a quick transitional period of constitutional reform and new parliamentary and presidential elections. You will need constitutional reform of some kind because the current provisions regarding things like succession and elections are designed to maintain the existing regime and do not allow change.
How did Egypt change under Mubarak’s rule? How should his rule be evaluated?
Ottaway: Mubarak started ruling with increasing repression as the situation worsened over the last decade and did little to address the problems in the country. While he desperately wanted to preserve security, what worked in his early years in office didn’t work as well in recent years. He never had a vision of how to maintain stability in the face of changing conditions.
When Mubarak came to power after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt had been through a period of constant turmoil for thirty years. Mubarak was the antithesis of the previous leaders and came in with a firm conviction that the country needed stability.
In the early years, he made some cautious but promising steps to further open the economy and political system. His growing fears of insecurity, however, soon caused him to clamp down on opposition groups—Islamist and secular. By the end of the 1980s, the regime was becoming more and more repressive politically and sluggish economically, and reform ground to a halt.
In the end, Egypt lost its economic and diplomatic heft under Mubarak’s leadership. This greatly upsets Egyptians as they still see themselves as leaders of the Arab world. But the country has lost its leadership role both economically and politically. Mubarak wasted opportunities because he was too timid to innovate and take risks that could have restored Egypt’s leading role in the region but might have diminished his control.
Despite high levels of international military and financial assistance, Egypt missed opportunities to grow economically and develop a new modern education system. Egypt is now a tired and discouraged country with growing inequality. There are increasingly two Egypts—the Egypt of the rich with big gated communities and the Egypt of the poor with overcrowded and suffering cities.
Mubarak damaged the country’s regional and international standing and will leave behind a more repressive and less economically viable country.
Who are the key groups and figures who will play a leading role in shaping the outcome?
Ottaway: What we are seeing in Egypt is the problem with unorganized protests, as we are seeing in Tunisia: these protests don’t seem to produce new leaders or any organized force that can play a role in the next steps of forming a new government and implementing reforms. So the players now are the same ones who existed before.
The balance of power between the players, however, has shifted. On the government side, the party seems to be disappearing. The National Democratic Party was the front of the regime, but it is now disintegrating in the face of the protests. Party leaders are not issuing statements and several prominent figures have resigned.
With the party ceasing to function, the security/military side of the regime has come to the fore. The military was in the background until recently, but there has been a clear change in the balance of power within the regime. It is clear that the loyalty of the security forces lies with the head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, who is now vice president, but we do not yet know what position the military will take.
The army has played an ambiguous role. While they are out in the streets, they are not active in repressing the protests. But they have not come out explicitly in favor of the protestors either. The army command could remain loyal to Mubarak, but it may not trust the troops to obey orders to break up demonstrations. While it is very difficult to see what the military will do, it may be the key determining factor in the end.
Outside of the regime, there is complete disorganization. The street movement was started through networking in social media, but there is no organization behind the crowds. The opposition groups that existed before the protests escalated are weak and divided.
The secular political parties are small, disorganized, and do not seem to have strong constituencies. The Muslim Brotherhood has shown better organization in the past, but after the 2005 elections they have lost support because they were not being effectual and no one knows how much support they enjoy. They have been trying to take a low profile and are uncertain about what to do.
Neither the secular parties nor the Muslim Brotherhood are offering leadership. And out of all of these groups, no one is standing out as a potential leader who can negotiate with the Mubarak regime. There has been an agreement among political parties to let Mohammed ElBaradei be the figurehead, but there is not a groundswell of support for him. Still, he may end up being the spokesperson for the protestors because there is no one else around.
There is a great deal of anger and a shaky regime, but no obvious alternative at the moment.
What is the makeup of the current government? Who are the most influential players?
Dunne: In response to the demonstrations, President Mubarak sacked his cabinet and appointed Director of Central Intelligence Omar Suleiman as vice president—the first vice president during Mubarak’s thirty-year tenure—and Ahmad Shafiq, former air force commander and minister of civil aviation, as prime minister. Mubarak also replaced unpopular Interior Minister Habib Adli with another security officer who is not well known, and replaced all of the ministers who were associated with unpopular economic reforms.
Some other major stalwarts of the regime—Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi and Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit—remain, as does Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab, whose management of elections has been strongly criticized.
The last cabinet, which was in place since 2004, was all about economic reform; this new cabinet, which might well be short-lived, is all about security.
The key players are Suleiman, Shafiq, and Tantawi. While Shafiq and Tantawi have relatively neutral public reputations as military officers, Suleiman is more controversial due to his background as director of intelligence, which automatically associates him with human rights abuses.
How will this impact the presidential election set for later this year?
Dunne: Even if Mubarak survives this crisis, which seems increasingly unlikely, the uprising has completely changed calculations about the presidential election. It is now clear that Mubarak cannot serve another term, nor will his son Gamal be a viable candidate.
The demonstrators and opposition groups are calling for a transitional government that will undertake the constitutional and legal changes necessary to allow a free and fair presidential election. It is not yet clear whether that would take place in September, as originally scheduled, or earlier than that.
Also, the protestors are calling for new parliamentary elections. The recent elections for the People’s Assembly, held in November 2010, were regarded as thoroughly corrupt, rigged elections, and were the last straw in increasing public discontent with the government.
Will a new Egyptian government influence the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Muasher: While it is too early to tell exactly what form the Egyptian government will take, it is safe to say that any new government will not abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. It is also important to note that the relationship between Egypt and Israel is already cold on a popular level, and even though Egypt has played a leading role in pushing the peace process forward, there is not much of a peace process at the moment.
So over the short term it does not make a huge difference whether Cairo and Jerusalem enjoy warm relations—the peace process will not suffer because of Israeli-Egyptian strains.
How will a change in Egyptian leadership impact the Arab world?
Muasher: The future of Egypt will have a huge impact on the Arab world. Egypt is the Arab world’s largest country and, as the saying goes, what happens in Egypt doesn’t stay in Egypt.
The protests send strong signals that political reform is needed—and needed now—and all Arab countries are at risk of upheaval. The Arab street has not been vocal for decades, but it is now clear that it is no longer acquiescing on political reform issues, particularly corruption. This is a signal that Arab leaders cannot afford to miss.
Just a short time ago, people tried to argue that the Tunisian crisis was an isolated case and that Tunisia was different from any other Arab country. It is now difficult—if not impossible—to make the same argument with Egypt engulfed in turmoil. If the largest Arab country is faced with unrest, then people need to draw the right lessons.
How is the United States responding to the crisis?
Ottaway: The United States is playing its hand badly right now—the Obama administration has managed to turn the crowds against the United States. The protests did not start this way, but there are more and more anti-American messages. Egyptians are increasingly critical of the position Washington is taking.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has claimed that Washington has been pressuring Cairo to undertake political reforms for thirty years and that this policy would essentially continue. But the Egyptian public did not see things this way. In the past, people in Egypt did not think Washington was pushing for democracy in the country and so the message being received in Egypt is that the United States will still not put pressure on Mubarak.
There is a fear in the United States that the Muslim Brotherhood could gain power and that a change in leadership will impact Egypt’s relations with Israel. Both of these fears are greatly exaggerated. And these are the concerns that have kept Washington from putting pressure on the Mubarak regime for all these years.
The Iranian scenario—where the situation in Egypt will mirror the 1979 Iranian revolution—is extremely unlikely in Egypt given the Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of a charismatic figure and divisions within its leadership. And there is no new government—without the radical Islamist alternative in the cards—that will rush into reopening a conflict with Israel. While there is no love lost between Egyptians and Israelis, there is no sign that new leaders would break the peace treaty.
How will U.S. relations with a key Arab ally be altered?
Dunne: The United States is in a difficult position. The Obama administration has been tepid in its support for democratization in Egypt and now has to play catch up.
The U.S. government is not eager to see Mubarak go, as there is great concern in Washington that any Egyptian leader coming after Mubarak will be inclined to cool relations with both the United States and Israel. This will further complicate many U.S. efforts in the region that are already troubled, particularly Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts.
On the other hand, the damage to U.S. interests will only increase if Washington is seen as propping up Mubarak. The gap between Mubarak and the Egyptian people, which has been expanding for a decade, has now grown so wide that it is not possible for the United States to stand on both sides.