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Egypt: Possible Scenarios

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Egypt is the leader of Arab countries, if not of the (mainly Sunni) Islamic world. Even though every Arab-Islamic country has its own character, Egypt is the point of reference for all, and is thus in a way a mirror of the Arab world. Any change in Egypt could have a dramatic impact on issues of international importance. The Camp David agreement was just one example of this. That's why even the chancelleries and centers of power are watching the ongoing developments in Egypt very closely. These are hugely exciting times, but next to widespread hope there are also many dangers.

Like other Arab countries, Egypt is governed by a national elite whose power base lies in the security structures and an army that does not recognize democratic legitimacy. Despite massive corruption and repression, such countries have been able to receive international support, especially from the US. Mubarak's thirty-year rule is the most important example of this. In part, he has secured international support by presenting himself as the only person able to prevent the takeover of the state by fundamentalists, and hence to ensure national and regional security. But the radical nature of the current protest suggests that a combination of extreme poverty and the denial of basic rights by the authoritarian elite have led to insecurity and instability instead.

The Egyptian economy is ranked 137th amongst world economies, falling just below Tonga. This is despite the fact that the country has earned billions of dollars from tourism, the Suez Canal and US aid. Poverty within the country is so extreme that in Cairo alone more than a million people now live in cemeteries. It is this extreme poverty which provides the fundamentalists with such effective propaganda. A lesson emerges from this desperate situation: those who plan for increasing stability and security in the region should realize that policies which support regimes like Mubarak's, have been total failures. They may need to consider an alternative strategy, to support the establishment of a genuinely effective democracy. For only citizens who enjoy democratic rights can guarantee the stability and security of a society.

There are three sets of players in the Egyptian scene right now...

The first players are the members of the ruling elite, supported by security forces and an army which, still as this article is written, has Mubarak's face as its symbol. There may be other faces symbolizing power in the future, but these too will be military ones. The military is Egypt's most powerful institution and one embedded deeply in all aspects of life. It will do its best to retain its purpose and power. In order to make sure that his regime stays in power, Mubarak resorted to a coup in which he appointed Omar Suleiman, his right-hand man and the country's intelligence chief, as vice-president.

Another emerging figure within the army in these days is nationalist Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi, appointed as PM. The position of the ruling elite was summarized in a declaration made by a government-owned newspaper on Sunday: "Egypt challenges anarchy." So, in the name of "challenging anarchy," security men began to fire on peaceful demonstrators and hired thugs began to arrest activists. "A Conspiracy by Security to Support the Scenario of Chaos," replied an independent newspaper in a headline.

The second player in this scenario are the Egyptian people: millions of men, women, youth, workers, intellectuals, writers, journalists, and ordinary citizens who demand rights and freedom and aware of the dangers of sectarianism. The best-known opposition figure is Dr. ElBaradei, a moderate diplomat who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his working in leading the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. A headline recently read: "El Baradei asks Obama: Take Egypt's Mubarak off life support." Other prominent figures like the jurist Ayman Nour and Osama al-Ghazali Harb have also struggled to build popular followings. But there could emerge other figures from the wider civil society and from the ranks of Kefayah (Enough) as well.

The Islamists are the third set of players. Egyptian Islamism (like all social phenomena) is complex and divided. It encompasses a myriad of trends, ranging from enlightened moderates to extremists who exploit the concept of jihad (originally based on catharsis) and promise a land of desolation. The Muslim Brotherhood could be expected to win a large part of the vote in any fair election as it is rooted in Islamic society and has gained a certain popularity for the work of its charities.

As it is under constant pressure from jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood knows better than any other group the risks of sectarianism and the impossibility of a confessional state in a country where about 10 millions Coptic Christians live. It is also aware of the unacceptability of a confessional state in an actual global equilibrium. By far, the Muslem Brotherhood represents the most powerful force in this situation, but Mr. Beltagui and another Brotherhood official, Mohamed el-Katatni, have said the group understood the implications of seeking leadership in a country still deeply divided over its religious program.

Here are some possible scenarios for how the situation could play out among these groups.

One scenario that could play out is a clash between the ruling elite (with or without Mubarak) and the elements of civil society. In this scenario, the ruling elite will promise formal security and stability by fighting the fundamentalists, and will continue to receive aid from the US, the support of Israel. It would be shock therapy, a treatment resolution that promises future explosions.

The second scenario is the emergence of a power vacuum that could lead to some form of civil war and a Lebanization of Egypt; a sort of chaos in which armed fundamentalist groups might thrive and the army would need to take over the running of the state, but without the necessary forces to defeat them. This scenario, which is the wishful thinking of the enemies of Egypt, would certainly be prevented by the Egyptians themselves. As Amr Shalakany wrote from in Tahrir Square in Cairo: "This is a sweet, sweet revolution; it is peaceful. Tell everyone we are peaceful." And the government has offered talks with protesters after the army said it will not fire on them.

A third scenario is that the army, as the key institution, indicates to Mubarak that he must resign as he is a cause of instability. In this case, the army takes charge of the country's security. In such a scenario, chaos and violence are avoided, and Mr. Mubarak could leave gradually. This would allow the necessary time to exclude President Mubarak and his closet associates, but also to let the surviving parts of the ruling system exist as warrant to prevent fundamentalist groups from flourishing. This is probably what Washington means by an "orderly transition." In this scenario, Mohamed ElBaradei (or another figure) could emerge as a compromise to oversee the transition and a free and fair election for the presidency and parliament. This could only happen if only the Egyptians decide to follow through along this path.

There is a strong and simmering demand for democracy throughout the Middle East, Eurasia and surroundings regions. It is a demand that, unlike in the past, is based mainly on moderation and is to a large extent being organized by civil society. Having the courage to support these movements also means marginalizing extreme tendencies and contributing to global security. Over 80 million Egyptians (and about 300 million Arabs) suffer from the lack of a Martin Luther King or Islamic Gandhi and they are caught between jihadi (al-Qeda) confessional movements and regimes supported by security structures. There could be a third solution based on democratic rights.