POLITICO January 31, 2011
One way or another, the Mubarak dynasty is toast.
After three decades of absolute power, the only thing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt now fully controls is when he goes. And the octogenarian may not be able to dictate the terms or timing of his exit for much longer — almost certainly not until the presidential elections due in September.
Global giddiness after a remarkable week of “people power” protests is likely to give way this week to anxious realities for Egypt, the region and its allies.
Three factors will influence what happens next.
First, Egypt literally may not have the luxury of waiting for a gradual or gentle transition. Cairo’s stock market began to drop even before the “Day of Rage” protests Friday forced the Egyptian leader to finally address his nation — with desperate-sounding platitudes. The sense of an uncertain future is likely to further undermine Egypt’s economy, as well as the weak reforms by Mubarak’s regime, which have already been hurt by the global economic crisis. The weekend looting will not help.
Tourists — a critical source of income in Egypt — are fleeing the turmoil. International airlines have canceled flights indefinitely. And forget badly needed foreign investment — governments are pulling out diplomats and dispatching special flights to withdraw their stranded citizens.
So the economic pressure is now on. In the end, that’s the key factor that often topples regimes.
Second, the entire region is now at stake. The abrupt ousting of a regime in Tunisia, a small country of 10 million people between Algeria and Libya, is one thing. In Egypt, the fall of a regime is quite another matter.
With 80 million people living along the fertile Nile River, Egypt accounts for roughly one-quarter of the total population of the 22 Arab countries. It is the Arab political and foreign policy trendsetter. Despite the nation’s pervasive malaise for more than a decade, it is still considered the intellectual center.
Arabs themselves want Egypt’s future resolved.
Third, the world cannot afford to let Egypt fester without risking a dangerous political vacuum, even worse turmoil and deepening resentment of foreign governments — especially the United States. Egyptian protesters are already challenging Washington’s role.
“USA: We hate your hypocrisy,” warned a big, handmade poster waved by a protester over the weekend.
Cairo has certainly been an essential ally. It played a pivotal role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, initiated under former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It has taken a tough stand against extremism — though, in fairness, largely for the regime’s own survival because its draconian practices helped fuel militancy. But both national security priorities — shared by most of the world — are in jeopardy as long as Egypt is unstable and its future is uncertain.
The big challenge now for Egypt and Tunisia — and potentially others — is to fill the political vacuum with credible parties and talented people after decades of outlawing, isolating, exiling and even executing dissidents. This is a long-haul challenge, not something that can happen overnight. Three forces will play defining roles.
The first is the emerging body politic, and its role is far from over.
New movements in Egypt and Tunisia and the bubbling unrest elsewhere in the Arab world are still evolving. Their goals, so far largely nonideological, are justice and job creation.
And they are shaped by the forces of modernization: Education is moving people beyond goals of daily subsistence. Demographics have created a dominant youth population, aware of change elsewhere in the world. Since the mid-1990s, satellite channels have provided a source of information outside the state’s control. And technology has offered a means of communicating and mobilizing.
Second are Muslim conservatives — not to be confused with extremists or radicals. In much of the Arab world, Islam today is less an end goal than a source of identity. Even as growing numbers of Muslims reject extremism, they are turning to their faith as a pillar to cling to during the tornado of political change — a role religion has played in many other upheavals in the past century.
Third is the military, which is made up of the people in many Arab countries. In Tunisia, the army leadership took the decision to fulfill its mandate — defending the nation, not the regime. During its initial deployment, Egypt’s military did, too. In fact, several soldiers were captured for chanting or singing along with protesters.
For all the euphoria about people power facing down dictatorial regimes, Egypt and Tunisia face even tougher challenges now because their populations have rising expectations and believe they deserve tangible improvements in their lives. Any regime — old or new — will find it almost impossible to deliver benefits soon enough.
Robin Wright, who has covered the Middle East since 1973, is a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.