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Thirty Years after Khomeini: Will Egypt Turn into another Iran?

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The 83-year-old President Mubarak of Egypt has been in power since 1981. Concerns about his health draw much greater attention to the question of who will next rule the nation of Egypt. "When it happens, it will rock the world..: octogenarian Mubarak, will leave office, either by his own decision or that of Providence, probably within the next three years. So far, few in the West have paid much attention. But Egyptians certainly are getting ready, and we should do so as well", says Georgetown University Professor Michelle Dunne, expert on Arab politics and U.S. policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

President Mubarak has been polishing his son Gamal to be his successor - in a country which is supposed to be a republic with elected officials! Unlike Sadat and Nasser, Mubarak has persistently refused to appoint a vice-president. Egyptians are enraged at the thought that Mubarak's son, Gamal, would be their next ruler as in Syria. They believe he would continue the same route of his father by enriching the elite while ignoring the increasing demands of the masses for reform. Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist; he has turned Egypt into a police state with a security force infrastructure that numbers nearly 2 million recruits. Mubarak's regime has grown very unpopular and detested by most Egyptians. Prices of basic food items and commodities are skyrocketing.

The Final Days?

The possible fall of the centralized government of Egypt and the Mubarak's regime could send shock waves throughout the globe. Under the current regime, there is no apparent chain of command or democratic institutions that would facilitate the transfer of power to the next president. According to Thomas Barnett, the problem is "Another political force is connecting to the restive Egyptian people, and this force is the Muslim Brotherhood, known otherwise as al-Qaeda 1.0. By hardwiring themselves into the goodwill of the masses through highly effective social-welfare nets, the Brotherhood is retracing the electoral pathway to power blazed by Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon: hearts and minds first, blood and guts later. It is now basically a race: Gamal's quest for foreign direct investment and the jobs it generates versus the Brotherhood's quest for the political support of average Egyptians tired of lives led in quiet desperation. Who will win? I'm betting another "olive tree" fight breaks out long before any Egyptian "Lexus" goes to market".

Barnett adds: "Sounds incredible? It isn't, because the more likely scenario is that Mubarak the Elder dies before Mubarak the Younger can turn himself into Egypt's Deng Xiaoping, yielding a Tiananmen Souk that lights up the country pronto with the Brotherhood's [Muslim Brothers, a.k.a. Ikhwan] prodding. And since these students will be hoisting pictures of Osama instead of a makeshift Goddess of Democracy, President Obama is likely to find himself facing an unbelievably bad choice in the largest Arab country. Would America intervene militarily to preserve Gamal's faltering rule, making good on all the strategic promises implied by the $50 billion in aid to Egyptian regimes since 1975? Or we can hope that a twenty-first-century Masada in a Middle East where Iran has the bomb can hold out?"

Barnett contends that if the international community drives "al-Qaeda & Co. out of the Middle East ... it will be forced into its current strategic rear of choice--Africa. Africa is where al-Qaeda hides its money, guns, recruits, training camps--and its future. Africa will be the last great stand in this Long War, where all those impossibly straight borders once drawn by colonial masters will inevitably be made squiggly again by globalization's cultural reformatting process. Now this fight heads south...and yes, the Long War will be even uglier there".

Meanwhile, visible signs of discord between the United States and Egypt over a wide array of issues have appeared in recent years. "Today, the bilateral relationship has eroded over Mubarak's cold peace with Israel, to dealings with terrorist supporting states on its borders. Equally alarming is the rise of anti-American and Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Egypt's state media and society" said Dr. Robert Satloff, the Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in his testimony before the Committee on International Relations in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Haunted by the memories of the overnight fall of the Shah of Iran to the Ayatollahs, U.S. policymakers fear a similar event in Egypt. Once thought to be a strong U.S. ally, the Shah of Iran, lost his grip over power to the zealous clergy sabotaging every effort for peace and stability in the region. Marcos and Suharto, two old dictators considered strong U.S. allies, as well, fell to the angry mobs in the Philippines and Indonesia.

President Obama is likely to find himself facing an unbelievably bad choice in the largest Arab country, considering the several scenarios that can take place in Egypt. Would an ambitious general stage another coup, turning Egypt into a God -knows-what regime? Would that general ally himself with Muslim radical groups like the Muslim Brothers, Hamas, or Hezbollah? Would Egypt witness another Khomeini-style revolution? Considering the alarming rising poverty figures in Egypt and the disparities between the classes, could Egypt be overrun by an angry and hungry mob, French Revolution style? Egypt would then erupt into lawlessness, chaos, or perhaps civil war with the dissolving of the central government, its head figures and its upper class already preparing for such a turn of events.

If the Muslim Brotherhood were to achieve power in Egypt, Israel's demise would once again become the overt unifying principle for governments in the region. Whatever the scenario would be, spillover from what could occur in Egypt in the near future would impact many nations. With Hamas taking control in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon - backed by the Baathists in Damascus and the Mullahs in Tehran, the regime would be populated by regimes who would all agree on one thing: hatred for America and wiping the state of Israel off the map.

Just south of Egypt lies another unfriendly neighbor. Sudan's government, with its generals and clerics, brings more bad news to policymakers in Western capitals, stockholders in major global markets, and the average citizens and consumers who have to pay the price with every Middle East crisis.

Western capitals and observers in the region are keeping tabs on the situation in Egypt, fearing a domino effect in case of a trigger event occurring in Egypt. But it seems that none of these experts can give an answer to what would be the way out of that bottleneck. Inspired by their fatalism, Egyptians have developed an attitude of coping with the situation, which leads to more apathy and a state of hopelessness waiting for a divine intervention. Their government continues to give promises of reform knowing that giving up absolute power and opening the door for free speech and elections would hasten its demise. The military institution in Egypt is on the guard and waiting to intervene while the banned Ikhwan movement has been gaining momentum.

May Kasem, political scientist at the American University in Cairo, gives her advice to decision makers in Washington saying that "Political stability, peace, and development in the Middle East, like anywhere else, can best be achieved through reform rather than revolution... Foreign support may protect and prolong the lifespan of an authoritarian regime, but it cannot maintain such a regime indefinitely. It is in the interest of all parties concerned, including authoritarian regimes and their international patrons, to opt for political reform rather than risk the imposed and unpredictable transformation of dissent. The U.S. should recognize that it should pressure friends into genuine reforms".

According to Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, "If we could choose one place to press hardest to reform, it should be Egypt.... In Egypt, we must ask President Mubarak to insist that the state-owned press drop its anti-American and anti-Semitic rants, end the glorification of suicide bombers and begin opening itself up to other voices in the country. Egypt is the intellectual soul of the Arab world. If it were to progress economically and politically, it would demonstrate more powerfully than any essay or speech that Islam is compatible with modernity and that Arabs can thrive in today's world.

Ambassador Edward S. Walker, Jr., who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Ambassador to Egypt, criticized "the duality of Egyptian policy, which can be called having its cake and eating it too. It [the regime] plays to its domestic audience through the media, officially sponsored clerics, and the educational system. The regime blames all its shortcomings on imperialism, Zionism, the West, and the United States and uses that to build domestic support".

Professor Tate Miller of the Monterey Institute for International Studies says that "Perhaps no nation has greater potential to influence the destiny of the Middle-East, and hence the world, than Egypt. Yet, like a lingering and unrecognized apparition, Egypt's influence in regional and global affairs seems always just out of sight, and never fully understood. Egypt's future can be the potential tipping point of Middle Eastern society".

No one has offered a vision of hope for the Egyptians. The average Egyptian citizen finds himself or herself in a 'we're-stuck' situation. This situation manifests itself in an angry, restless, anxious and irrational behavior that reflects on Egyptian society witnessing a high wave of violent crimes: such as rape, murder, a high rate of divorce, drug use, white collar crimes, road rage, embezzlement, military service desertion, domestic violence, and countless other crimes.

Average citizens and consumers worldwide have been paying the price for conflicts in the Middle East in terms of jacked up oil prices which lead to increased prices for gasoline, heat and energy bills and other commodities. For Egypt, political stability means economic growth, less spending on military conflicts, more cash to social programs, happy voters, and hence high ratings for politicians. "It is all one big picture, a cycle of connected events, inevitably and inextricably linked in our ever shrinking global village .

Given this equation, any near term trigger event in Egypt would garner at least the same global attention as any other Middle East regional conflict. Hence, the four scariest words in the political dictionary are: Egypt after Hosni Mubarak? This is why whatever unfolds on the Egyptian landscape; will be a story of monumental proportions.

Aladdin Elaasar wrote "The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age."