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Dictator Hosni Mubarak is Gone: Now What's in Store for Egypt's Future?

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Hosni Mubarak ceded power to the Egyptian military on Friday as a popular revolt swept away the leader of the Arab world’s most populous state, throwing into question the future of the entire Arab world.

In the aftermath of Friday’s historic day, here are thee important questions that need to be addressed.

1. What should President Obama do about Egypt, now?

Best course of action, Mr. President, is to do little or nothing.

Pundits on both the left and the right increasingly criticize the Obama administration for being too cautious and not Egypt Protesters Hang Hosni Mobarak Effigy. Photo: pinoytutorial.com/.../ more supportive of popular movements challenging authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. 

Those who support a more vocal U.S. role on behalf of democracy in the Muslim world cite Washington's strong (and ultimately successful) support for Poland's Solidarity in the 1980’s. This historic parallel, however, is weakened when considers the very different perception of the U.S. in Eastern Europe circa 1989 versus the present-day Middle East.

To most people in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union was a meddling, imperialist oppressor. America's moral support was welcomed because they saw the U.S. as the USSR's principal adversary. Even if America had not been a beacon of freedom and democracy, there would have been positive feelings toward the avowed enemy of their imperial overlord.

The situation in the Middle East is vastly different. People here generally view the U.S. with great suspicion. U.S. policy for decades has supported “friendly” but autocratic regimes in the region. Consequently all too many Middle Easterners regard Washington as the meddling, imperialist power that is responsible for their unsatisfactory lot in life.  A succession of U.S. administrations has reinforced that negative image by backing corrupt, authoritarian regimes, like the Saud family in Saudi Arabia and Mubarak in Egypt that looted and brutalized their people.

One only has to examine recent polls to see evidence of such hostility.  A June 2010 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 82% of respondents in Egypt had an unfavorable view of the United States, and 79% in Jordan did so. That negative assessment is not confined to the Arab portion of the Muslim world. In Pakistan, the unfavorable rating was 68%, and in Turkey 74%.

Such pervasive animosity makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, for Washington to play a major constructive role in the political transition that we're now beginning to witness in the Middle East. Put bluntly, even if U.S. officials profess to support the goals of democracy and liberty, based on our past history and reputation in the region, those statements carries very little credibility.

It would seem hypocritical if President Obama would vocally support the protesters and their calls for liberty.  It would be as if the Soviet regime had belatedly backed free elections and other features of democracy in Eastern Europe in 1990. Such a change in policy would have been seen as much too little, much too late.

It is in the best interests for the U.S. if secular, democratic forces emerge victorious in the aftermath of the fall of Mubarak. But President Obama’s overt support of these forces could backfire, giving extremists groups a chance to capitalize on anti-American feelings and seize power.

2. Will an extremist group, like the Muslim Brotherhood, seize power?

Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is the world’s largest and most influential Islamist movement; however, it will unlikely be ruling Egypt.

Today’s Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization, nor does it have a rigid doctrine. While many of its older members are deeply conservative, many of the younger ones are modern and reform-minded. The Brotherhood has a charter that sounds pretty extreme, but its make up is diverse, and in recent years has been moderating.  

Now that Mubarak is gone, Islam will probably play a larger role in Egyptian society. But unlike Iran’s Shiites, Egypt Sunnis see the clergy as mere spiritual advisors, not as rulers that need to be obeyed absolutely.

This new generation of Egyptians (half the population is under 24) have a very different set of cultural values than of their elders. That’s why it is misguided to raise dire warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood or expect the extremists to benefit from this Arab transformation.  Yet there are extremists amongst them, and a number of them would love to take whatever new freedoms are emerging and radicalize the youth. Their dream is that the Arab youth embrace fundamentalist Islam.

That probably will not happen. Egyptians are rebelling for more, not less freedom. “The most the Muslim Brotherhood can hope for is 20 percent of seats in the Egyptian Parliament, “ says Hani Shadi, an Egyptian journalist. Secular parties will likely emerge to balance out the influence of the Islamic Brotherhood.

If the Muslim Brotherhood dares to take power by force, they will be stopped quickly by a powerful military that will resist an Islamic dictatorship at all costs. It will not dare tolerate Muslim extremists to jeopardize the decades old peace treaty with Israel.

3. So the army can be trusted to pave the way for democracy, right, like it did Turkey?

The voices of democracy in Egypt are starting to demand a timetable for democratic reforms, but are now starting to have doubts that the military is really committed to free elections. These voices are very justified in their suspicions of the military.

Egypt’s transition toward a post- Hosni Mubarak era has sparked interest in the “Turkish model” of democracy-craft, i.e. with the military playing a stabilizing role during the transition process while Islamist parties moderate through political participation.

This is not going to happen. First, Turkey had many well-established mass political parties prior to 1960 and 1980, whereas Egypt does not.

Second, the army presents itself as a force of order and a neutral arbiter between contending opponents, but it has significant interests of its own to defend, and it is not, in fact, neutral.

Egypt's military is now running the country following Mubarak's resignation. Its pledges Saturday to follow the international treaties that the Mubarak government followed, including the peace treaty with Israel. Egypt's military strongly supports the peace deal, not in small part because it guarantees U.S. aid for the armed forces, currently running at $1.3 billion a year. Why would it want to allow Egyptian civilian politicians to ruin this sweet gravy train?

You see, the basic structure of the Egyptian state as it now exists has benefited the military. The practical demands of the protesters seem fairly simple: end the state of emergency, hold new elections, and grant the freedom to form parties without state interference. But these demands would amount to opening up the political space to everyone across Egypt's social and political structure. That would involve constitutional and statutory changes.

These changes would wipe away the power structure the army created in 1952 and has backed since. Though possible that the military may recognize the benefits of a democracy, like in Turkey, I feel it is more likely that the military will consolidate its power and return to military rule of decades past.

So based on these three questions and answers, we should expect that the Obama administration will take a cautious approach to Egypt, and it is the military, not the Islamic Brotherhood, that is the greatest threat to democracy in Egypt.

Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@philly2philly.com

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