This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 03/01/2011
Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak is in deep trouble. But there is much more at stake at the heart of this storm. His toppling might bring about the full collapse of the military regime that has supported him for three decades. Now that Mubarak’s hours seem numbered, the military establishment has shifted into high gear to take over key positions of power. Former air force commander Ahmad Shafik took over as prime minister, and former defense minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi became deputy premier. The most important post of vice president has gone to a former general and head of the powerful security intelligence, Omar Suleiman, a strong man with many connections.
Despite the new government’s heavy security credentials, it faces an unpredictable future. Right now, Egypt faces three different scenarios.
Scenario one: Mubarak and his lieutenants will try to ride out the unrest. They hope to wear out the crowds using the carrot-and-stick approach. They will promise to address political reforms, improve employment conditions, and allow freedom of speech. At the same time, they will display a show of power with the military scattered throughout the country and fighter jets sweeping low over the crowds. Come September, an election will be held in which Suleiman will do whatever it takes to get to the top. Suleiman and the rest of the military establishment believe that time is on their side as they take every necessary step to avoid a second uprising. Mubarak will step down as a great president who has served his country in an honorable way for 30 years. Meanwhile, the promises made of political reforms are unlikely to be kept. In sum, the status quo will be restored under the leadership of Suleiman.
Scenario two: Mubarak steps down, but the regime does not. If the crowds remain on the streets, Mubarak will be forced to leave office to give the regime a chance of survival. The average Egyptian abhors Mubarak more than anything else. He has come to exemplify all of Egypt’s current failings. By dumping Mubarak, the military regime will not only attempt to avoid clashes with the people but also to win their support. At this moment, the most important thing for the military regime is to keep the reins of power in its own hands. Under this scenario, there will be no radical changes in Egypt’s domestic or foreign policy. Egypt will remain on the same path as in the first scenario.
Scenario three: Mubarak and the regime step down. What the people demand is a complete transformation of the political landscape: the resignation of the military regime that has dominated Egypt’s politics since the Free Officers’ revolution in 1952. A successful regime change in Egypt will have a domino effect throughout the entire region, ushering in a radically different Middle East. At home, the Egyptian society will have to endure a hard period of transition, during which lessons will have to be learned in political compromise, pragmatism, and consensus. At the same time, Islamists of all strips and colors will be emboldened. On the foreign policy front, no other country will feel the pain more than Israel. After all, Egypt and Israel fought four wars. Although a peace treaty was signed between the two countries, Egyptian society has never really legitimized it, and the late president Anwar Sadat paid for it with his own life. The second loser will be the United States. After decades of supporting Mubarak and pursuing narrow-minded policies in the region, U.S. popularity is at rock-bottom.
At this time, there is no telling which scenario will triumph. What is clear, however, is the job of a dictator in Egypt has become much harder. Even if the military regime prevails in the short term, its days are numbered.