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Howard Schweber Headshot

Egypt -- The Likely Outcomes

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EGYPT MILITARY
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I heard an Egyptian joke yesterday that goes like this: Every Egyptian ruler chooses a vice president to make himself look good by comparison. So Nasser chose Sadat, and Sadat chose Mubarak. The reason there has been no vice president for thirty years has been that in all that time Mubarak could not find anyone who makes him look good. It's actually pretty funny.

As the protests continue, we are starting to hear reports of people running out of food, and a generally very high level of fear accompanying an equally high level of determination among the protesters. Mubarak's "strategy" has been a combination of desperation and vicious cynicism -- if there was a future for him a week ago, there certainly is none now. By contrast, both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are adopting extremely interesting strategies that clearly look ahead to what comes next. So I thought it was time to make some predictions.

- military rule: 50%
Probably the favored outcome of the U.S. and certainly the best for Israel (but don't say that out loud). The U.S. needs the "cold peace" between Egypt and Israel to be preserved, and it's no coincidence that we give Egypt $1.5 billion in military aid every year. Israel, more specifically, needs an Egyptian government that will cooperate to keep Gaza under siege. Suleiman is a very attractive candidate from this perspective -- he is well known to all the players (he brokered truce talks between Israel and Hamas, among other things), and there is every indication that both they and we think he is someone who can be dealt with. A military regime, either by outright coup or simply by Suleiman taking over leadership and consolidating military authority, would most likely accompanied by a hands-off policy (which more or less exists now) that cedes de facto control in the South to the Muslim Brotherhood but that keeps them out of any formal participation and maintains their formal status as an outlawed organization.

The public might accept this outcome once they are sufficiently tired of violence, insecurity, and shortage, especially since most people quite reasonably believe that a military regime will do a better job than the current one of spreading the wealth and delivering basic goods and services. Remember that this uprising started out as much because of economic grievances as because of any philosophical commitment to democracy for its own sake, which is not to deny that Egyptians have chafed under authoritarian rule for a long time.

Most important, the conduct of the military suggests that this is the outcome they are playing for (protect state properties, hotels, etc., do not intervene in street-level violence), and the discipline of troops on the ground in maintaining this balance has been impressive. I variously call this "the Hobbesian Equation" and "the Pakistan Solution." Take your pick. This is also almost the only plausible outcome that results in a new regime at all friendly toward the U.S. after 30 years of propping up Mubarak and turning a blind eye to his dictatorial rule, we have very little credibility with any of the more democratically-inclined parties. (A very interesting note here: there was a column in Ha'Aretz by Aluf Benn -- who has been critical of the Obama administration for not addressing Israel's concerns -- arguing that after a new regime takes over in Egypt, Israel will have to look to Syria for cooperation. Was that intended as a signal to someone?)

- El Baradei-led reform government backed by the military: 25%
The military might take a long view and decide that over a ten- or twenty-year period this is a more stable outcome than direct rule. In that case this becomes a plausible outcome, so long as the military leadership is confident that they will continue to play a central role.

- El Baradei-led reform government without military support: 15%
I might give higher odds to this being tried, but it wouldn't last long.

- Total chaos, followed by an Islamic takeover: 10%

There really is not widespread public support for the Brothers taking over, especially in the cities, and they have given no indication of seeking that outcome. Most interestingly, the leadership of the Brotherhood has called on Egyptians to respect state property and appealed to the greatness of the Egyptian nation. (All of which, if you think about it, is slightly odd given that this is a movement based on a global religion rather than nationalism.) A fundamentalist takeover could only become a likely outcome after an intervening stage of total collapse and essentially a three-way civil war, pitting the internal security forces against the military against the Brothers.

All of which, while interesting, is of scant comfort to the Coptic Christian community, who are rightly extremely fearful of religious violence being targeted against them as it was in January when a church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 25 worshipers. The Interior Ministry blamed the attack on the Army of Islam, a Gaza-based militant group with al-Qaeda links, but there has been plenty of home-grown violence against Egyptian Christians in the past. Now there are reports that Mubarak has opened the border with Gaza, allowing fighters from Hamas, the Army of Islam, and other radical groups into Egypt. These militants are much more radical in their ideology and much more violent in their tactics than the leadership of the Brotherhood in Egypt. In an extreme case, there is not only the possibility of violent attacks against religious minorities and pro-democracy protesters, there is the possibility of clashes of the sort that took place between Hamas and the PLO -- in fact, this seems to be what Mubarak is betting on. He has also sent the security forces to engage in looting and destruction (there are now numerous reports of neighborhood patrols capturing looters carrying security forces ID's), and opened the jails. His strategy is "apres moi le deluge," which he hopes will present the U.S. with no alternative but to support him or risk Egypt going the way of Iran. It is a false analogy, but not an entirely meaningless threat, and he has played it successfully for decades. This time, though, I think the blatant cynicism and ruthlessness of the strategy has gone too far. So...

- the Mubarak regime remains in power: 5%
I would give this a 0%, but anything is possible. The only path to this outcome would be the most ruthless and violent imaginable government crackdown, undertaken with the support of the military. This is the absolute worst-case scenario -- a nightmare of the first order.