On Friday, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman for nearly three decades, stepped down and handed authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. What can be expected from the country’s new military rulers? What are next steps envisaged by the opposition? And with Mubarak the second Arab leader to resign in the last month, what does this signal for the rest of the Arab world?

Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher, Marina Ottaway, and Michele Dunne discussed the next phase of Egypt’s transition and the implications for the region and the West.

Lessons from Tunisia

Ottaway began the discussion by comparing Egypt’s uprising to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali. 

  • Old regimes fight back: Despite the removal of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, the institutional framework of the old regimes has remained largely intact, Ottaway argued. Some of Ben Ali’s closest associates, including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, have retained their positions, casting doubt on the sincerity of the government’s commitment to meaningful political reform. Ottaway added that Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, drawn from the officer corps that formed the backbone of Mubarak’s regime, may also seek to preserve as much of the old political infrastructure as it can. Dunne agreed that the ruling National Democratic Party may seek to resurrect itself in a different form, noting that the party has continued to meet since Mubarak’s resignation.

  • Limited concessions to placate the opposition: In both Egypt and Tunisia, the interim leadership has attempted to placate protesters and the opposition with limited concessions, while covertly seeking to preserve the structural features of the old regimes, Ottaway suggested. In Tunisia, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) Party’s central committee was disbanded and the party itself was subsequently “suspended,” giving the impression of a leadership reshuffle. In reality, however, key personalities associated with the old regime—including former parliamentary speaker and newly appointed President Fouad Mebaaza—still dominate the government. According to Ottaway, the concessions offered by Egypt’s Supreme Military Council—including its pledge to amend but not rewrite the constitution in its entirety—are similarly limited in scope.  

  • Selective consultation: Current leaders in both Tunisia and Egypt have invited opposition groups to negotiate proposed reforms, but these dialogues have not been broadened to include a full spectrum of political forces, Ottaway acknowledged. In Egypt, youth activists suggested that the military leadership invite additional participants to the table, but Ottaway said this request was bluntly rebuffed.

  • The case for managed reform: Muasher noted that a managed process of top-down reform could lead to better outcomes than a highly inclusive process, given the pressing need of sweeping economic, social, and political changes.  According to Muasher, a truly comprehensive reform process must extend well beyond elections to include guarantees for power sharing, a strong parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press, and human rights. 

Revising Egypt’s Constitutional Framework

Egypt’s Supreme Military Council has appointed a constitutional reform committee tasked with revising six articles the opposition has identified as problematic. Although the committee has pledged to revise amendments pertaining to electoral procedures and presidential eligibility requirements, Dunne noted that some opposition forces are demanding the constitution be rewritten entirely.

  • Limited consultation in the amendments process: Ottaway noted that the Supreme Military Council has approached the constitutional reform process as a technical task best accomplished by a small group of trained experts. Although the committee includes a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a number of reform-minded jurists, the constitutional reform process remains highly exclusive.

  • The timeframe for reform: According to Dunne, the military council is trying to balance demands for immediate constitutional changes against fears that the leadership is moving too quickly.

Maintaining the Momentum After Protests

  • Without pressure, regimes will reproduce themselves: Ottaway cautioned that in the absence of sustained pressure by opposition groups, the remaining remnants of the old regimes could reassert themselves and regain control of the political process. In Egypt, as in Tunisia, “what’s left of the regime will continue protecting itself,” Ottaway said.

  • Street protests are not a mechanism for institutional reform: While massive popular demonstrations forced the regime to acknowledge political and economic grievances, protesters cannot exert influence over formal processes of institutional reform unless they engage in negotiations with the government, Ottaway said.

  • Fragmented opposition may impede negotiations: The Mubarak regime’s repressive policies contributed to the weakening and fragmentation of traditional opposition parties, Ottaway said. Meanwhile, there are indications that newer youth coalitions and grassroots movements—some of which emerged over the course of the January 25 uprising—are similarly divided by internal rivalries. The opposition’s lack of cohesion could weaken its bargaining power in negotiations with the military leadership. Dunne was somewhat optimistic that opposition forces may yet coalesce into a unified front capable of articulating a clear set of demands.

Challenges Ahead

Egypt’s reform process has only just begun, and the country’s new leadership will need to grapple with the formidable policy and economic challenges that lie ahead.

  • Economic vulnerability: Egypt’s economy has been severely destabilized by massive protests and labor strikes, Dunne said. In the aftermath of the uprising, Egypt is experiencing an acute need for economic assistance and U.S. policy makers will come under pressure to respond with emergency aid. At the same time, Egyptian leaders will face rising populist demands to reverse the liberalizing economic reforms introduced by Mubarak’s government, Muasher added. If Egypt’s leaders steer the country away from free-market policies by increasing subsidies and other welfare measures, Dunne predicted the United States and other foreign donors may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of funding economic programs at odds with neoliberal principles.

  • Urgent need for educational reform: According to Dunne, a “disastrous deterioration” in the quality of public education has created a generation of young Egyptians who are ill-prepared for the job market. The inadequacies of the educational system cannot be corrected overnight and will require long-term policy solutions, Dunne said.  

  • Policy challenges for the United States: Egypt’s uprising forced the United States to choose between supporting a longtime authoritarian ally or siding with the protesters calling for his resignation, Dunne said. In choosing the latter, the Obama administration signaled its willingness to re-evaluate U.S. support for other undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. Ottaway suggested that the administration may still be “on the fence” with regard to continued support for longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime , which cooperates with the United States on counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, in the face of increasing anti-government protests in Yemen.