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Egypt Without Mubaraks: Sampson Option or New Political Order?

Posted: 01/31/11 09:14 AM ET

Egypt's demonstrators have chased President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal from power, but their regime might survive. All now depends on how extensive, protracted and violent the conflict between its security forces and demonstrators becomes, and whether the army remains loyal. A preemptive strategy might salvage the regime, now the Mubaraks are departing. But as Ben Ali's pledge not to contest the 2014 presidential election in Tunisia demonstrated, their absence alone may not be enough to mollify the opposition.

Any transitional government preparing the new elections would have to exclude the more visible of President Mubarak's cronies, such as his newly appointed prime minister. While imposing a presidential successor would be the most difficult challenge, someone with ties to the regime who is also acceptable to the opposition, such as Secretary General of the Arab League and former Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, might be found. His election in November could be finessed in various ways, including by further constitutional revisions that guaranteed the subsequent election would be truly free and fair. If relatively little blood has been spilled, the incumbent elite remains intact, and the security forces united, a resolution along these lines might suit both incumbents and at least some of their challengers.

But the Egyptian state is already coming apart. Reminiscent of Tunisia's police thugs on the night of President Ben Ali's departure, looters with Central Security Force identification cards have already been caught, and some of the targets, such as the Qasr al Aini and the Children's Cancer Hospitals, not to mention the Cairo Museum, are also suspect. Dirty hands, as in Tunis on Jan 13, seem intent on provoking violence to discredit the popular demonstrations for reform -- Mubarak's Samson's Option?

If the regime does not preempt immediately, it may soon be forced to bargain. This would require at a minimum the judicial supervision of parliamentary elections, lifting of the emergency decree, and removal of censorship. Other demands would also be made, including disbanding of the ruling National Democratic Party, whose headquarters in Cairo and Alexandria have already been torched, confiscation of the assets and trials of various regime members and their crony capitalists, and some form of civilian control over the security forces presently commanded by the Minister of Interior. The outcome of this bargaining -- what political scientists refer to as a "pacted" transition -- would depend on the relative powers of the regime and opposition, which in turn would be heavily determined by their respective organizational coherence. A key matter to be resolved would be the Mubarak family's future and that of its substantial assets. If the treatment of King Farouk in 1952 is any guide, it would be exile in reasonable comfort.

Rapidly moving events could also remove the opportunity for Mubarak to bargain over the terms of his exit. The Ministry of Interior's security forces, discredited by their brutality and inability to control demonstrations, have now been replaced on the streets by the military. But the army cannot be expected to defend indefinitely Mubarak or the regime he would leave behind in the face of rising popular anger. The threat to its own coherence would become too great.

The train of rebellion may steam further down the track and become truly revolutionary. Prolongation and intensification of conflict could alter the opposition from its present reform oriented, coalition of the whole nature to a more hardened, socially deprived, less compromising force. Poverty stricken Upper Egypt, yet to witness demonstrations, could rise up in a far more violent fashion than has been the case in Lower Egypt. The Iranian revolution took months to move down this track, but events in Egypt are now moving at the pace they did just before the Shah's departure. That we can now even consider the revolutionary option suggests how dramatic the changes have been in Egypt since the January 25 day of rage.

Given these scenarios, how should the Obama Administration react if it wants to help Egypt obtain long term political stability? Full support of Mubarak obviously contradicts this objective, as does allowing the revolutionary train to proceed down the track. This leaves seeking to ensure regime survival without Mubarak, or working to bring about a transition to an altogether new, reformist led political order.

The temptation will be to try to save the regime, for it is one with which the US has successfully worked since the late Sadat era. But the danger of doing so is that attempts to perpetuate the status quo, sans Mubarak, not only fail of their objective but also undermine the reform-led option. If the armed forces and the politicians hiding behind them think Uncle Sam is going to at least tacitly support them, they will stand tough. This in turn enhances prospects for the Iran scenario.

The better option is to seek to bring about a new regime that has only as many elements of the old as the key reform constituencies are willing to tolerate. This requires a clear indication that this is the US objective, both in words and in deeds. The words will be for President Obama to utter, in yet more pointed form than his comments on January 28th. The deeds are for our civilian, military and intelligence foreign policy professionals. They need to develop close working relations with reformers, while assuring appropriate figures in the Egyptian military that the US will continue to support it so long as it supports the reformers and they it. Given the popularity of the military, even among reformers, and the likelihood of reformist sentiments even relatively high up in the officer corps, this should not be difficult. A coalition of civilian and military reformers is needed to sandwich in the Ministry of Interior's security forces, which although presently on the sidelines, remains a threatening force.

Egypt is at a critical turning point. Mubarak is apparently finished, but his regime could limp on. That is not in the interest of Egypt or the US. It is time for the latter, therefore, to support those Egyptians, civilian and military, who will help put the old order out of its misery as quickly as possible, and by so doing facilitate the birth of a healthy new one.