EGYPT: THE ALTERNATIVES
"After the biggest, most daring demonstrations President Hosni Mubarak has faced in his 30 years of iron rule in Egypt, a number of questions are becoming clearer. He will almost certainly not now be able to impose his banker son, Gamal, as his successor.
That option, already viewed sceptically inside a regime whose backbone lies in the military and central nervous system in the security services, would carry too much risk of instability, in the wake of this month’s sudden implosion of the Tunisian dictatorship of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, not to mention the spread of rioting to Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon – and now Egypt.
This month’s turn of events also makes it likely that Mr Mubarak, 82 and in poor health, will be discouraged by his military peers inside the regime from seeking a seventh term in presidential elections due in September.
But the question now is whether the regime itself is at risk, especially if tens of thousands of enraged demonstrators continue to defy its enforcers and demand that Mr Mubarak steps down. If they do, it is game on.
With more than 80m people, at the heart of the Arab world, Egypt, a strategic US ally, is bigger than Tunisia in almost every way. Upheaval there would have massive regional repercussions. And there is tinder aplenty to ignite.
Stop-go economic reform during the past 15 years has raised economic growth and performance, yet the number of Egyptians on or below the poverty line has risen from 39 to 43 per cent on Mr Mubarak’s watch. He rules under emergency laws, with manufactured electoral majorities, brooking no organised opposition; torture in Egypt is routine.
The regime has somewhat broadened its base, mainly by grafting on compliant business interests: army officers often sit on private company boards, while there are now scores of businessmen in the rubber-stamp parliament. The ruling National Democratic party, supposedly reformed by Gamal Mubarak, is not so much a party as a patronage system. Rather than reform, the Mubaraks have widened the circle of insiders".
Leader, "After Tunisia-the Egyptian Challenge," The Financial Times. 28 January 2011, in www.ft.com.
"The net result of the last five months has been to bring Egypt to the verge of anarchy. The present Egyptian Government is the best we can possibly hope for. Its position is precarious and its continuance in power depends on...some helpful move by us, and it needs it soon."
Anthony Eden to Winston Churchill, 10 March 1952, PREM 11/91. PRO, Kew.
The explosion that has taken place in Egypt this week, has shaken the ground on which all stability such as it is) exists in the Near and Middle East. The issue of the moment is not whether or not Mubarak himself remains in power. My own surmise, and like everyone else who has commented on the Near and Middle East in the past few weeks, my powers of prediction has not been very good, is that Mubarak, after his speech tonight, dismissing his cabinet and restating that he will remain in power, is that unless Mubarak is forced by the army to resign in the next week, due to mounting protests, will probably ride out the storm. Something which will require one would imagine a considerable spilling of blood. On the other hand, if the army refuses to enforce order on the streets by the widespread shedding of blood, then Mubarak's days will be quickly numbered. A third option is that a popular uprising takes place and the entire pre-existing structure is overthrown. And make no mistake, given the widespread poverty of Egypt as opposed to say Tunisia or even the rest of the Levant, and the much smaller size of the middle class elements, any true 'popular revolution' would have little resemblance to what occurred in Central & Eastern Europe in 1989, and more akin to what happened in Russia in 1905 or 1917 1. In the first scenario, Mubarak will probably hand off power in a year or so to a military-nominated replacement. In the second scenario, the army itself will take control, directly or perhaps indirectly `a la the situation in the country since the Nasser regime. In terms of the wider Near and Middle East, the survival of the Mubarak regime, even if tarnished with oceans of blood, will mean that stability of some sort will probably return to the region. If Mubarak is forced from power, and a military regime is in power, than the result is pretty much the same. If however the unprecedented occurs, and the entire political structure dating back to the July 1952 coup d'etat is overthrown, then the skies are the limit as far as instability is concerned. With the governments in Jordan and the West Bank likely to be next ones to be seriously concerned about being overthrown. In such circumstances even some of the Gulf Monarchies might be ripe for some degree of unrest.
In terms of the geopolitical context of the current unrest in Egypt, the matter is rather simple: the Mubarak regime or a replacement one by the Army will continue to maintain Egypt's place in the American orbit as has been the case since the mid-1970's. If on the other hand if there is a complete overthrow of what now exists in Egypt, and some government or regime which is 'popular', much less Islamic comes to power, than that will have the force of a political earthquake. Any such Egypt will by definition not be willing to remain in the American alliance structure. Nor will it probably be willing to remain on the sidelines the next time an 'Operation Cast Lead', or a replay of the Lebanon War of 2006, were to occur. Indeed, it would seem likely that a breaking off of diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Cairo would be one of the first things that any popular regime would do. The effects on Israel by such a changeover are rather easy to predict: it would no doubt seriously consider its options for a preventative war. And for another war between Egypt and Israel to be on the cards even in theory, is for at least this observer the ultimate diplomatic and indeed strategic nightmare in not only the Near & Middle East but indeed the entire planet 2. And based upon past form it seems to be beyond hope that the current or any other American Administration will help matters by pressuring the Israeli government to a just peace settlement. The recent leaks of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations showing how bankrupt is American bona fides on that score.
1. As per Lise Storm in Chatham House's International Affairs 44% of Egypt's population is living below the poverty line. See: "Persistence of authoritarianism as a source of radicalization in North Africa," International Affairs, (September 2009), p. 1009. With such a degree of poverty, the violence which was seen to-day is rather explainable. See: "Clashes in Cairo extend Arabs World's days of Unrest," 28 January 2011, in www.nytimes.com.
2. On the early signs that this issue is coming to the fore, see the following article in tomorrow's Financial Times: Tobias Buck, "Israelis fear unwinding of political stability," 29 January 2011, in www.ft.com. Where an Israeli commentator notes:"'In Tehran in 1979, there was a democratic moment, and we all know how that ended.” The official added: “A democratic opening is great – but will it last? And will it ultimately not unleash non-democratic and violent forces? That is our concern.” Eyal Zisser, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, points to a another historical analogy. “This is not like eastern Europe in the late 1980s,” he says. “This is not a region where stable dictatorships can be replaced with stable democracies. Here the alternative means chaos, anarchy and ?radicalism....Try to imagine the results of an election in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood allowed to run freely. The consequences for Israel would be very negative."