Events in Egypt

  • photo courtesy of Wikimedia http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/76/Obama_calls_Mubarak_Oval_Office_Jan_2011.jpg/320px-Obama_calls_Mubarak_Oval_Office_Jan_2011.jpg
    Jan 29, 2011

    Q1: What is at stake for the United States in Egypt?

    A1: The U.S. relationship with Egypt is remarkably broad and remarkably deep.  On a whole range of issues—from moving troops and equipment around the Middle East, to counterterrorism, to Arab-Israeli peace issues and beyond—the United States relies on having a friendly government in Egypt that generally agrees to U.S. security requests. A serious realignment in Egypt would mean all of those policies would have to be reshaped, and many would be less effective.  In addition, an Egyptian government that is less cooperative with Israel—as many in the Egyptian public demand—would make Israel feel less secure and could make Israel more prone to unpredictable unilateral actions, creating greater instability throughout the region.

    Q2: What should the United States do?

    A2: There is not very much the United States can do.  As tensions are high in Egypt, neither the protestors nor the government are relying on signals from the United States.  The only thing the United States can do that has immediate impact is make statements, and the President and Secretary of State have done that.  They’ve tried to walk the line between not abandoning a 30-year ally but also not turning their back on streets full of peaceful protestors with legitimate demands.  Ultimately, the United States government will seek to work with whatever government is in power in Egypt.  The key perspective most U.S. officials share is that peaceful change is most likely to lead to a more inclusive government, and violence is likely to lead to an extended period of tension and instability and radicalize both sides. The clear U.S. interest is in avoiding a bloodbath in the streets.

    Q3: How are the coming days and weeks likely to unfold?

    A3: Egypt’s government is not so much a Mubarak government as it is a military government.  Generals and retired generals control much of the government and much of the economy, and they would stand to lose a great deal if Mubarak were deposed.  While it is hard to know how protestors will act, there seems to be solidarity between the leadership of the police, the internal security services and the military. Cleavage between the leadership and the rank and file could throw the situation into chaos; sustained unity is likely to mean the government will be able to reassert control.  However the coming days and weeks pan out, it seems very unlikely that Husni Mubarak will stand for reelection in the fall, suggesting that whatever happens, we are seeing the beginning of the final act of the Mubarak presidency.

    Q4: How long will protests last?

    A4: It’s hard to imagine sustaining large-scale protests for weeks.  The incredible images coming out of Egypt, and Egyptians’ ability to watch them on satellite television around the clock, have compressed the timeframe.  The international community’s attention to Egypt and the Egyptian government’s deep ties to the international community also make it hard to sustain long-term massive protests.  At the same time, it is hard to imagine anything anyone can do that will quell quiet rumbling for months to come.   Regardless of what happens in the next week, it is hard to imagine Egypt will not have a new president in a year, and many will seek to use the intervening time to help shape who that president is and how that president will behave.

    Q5: Will this pave the way for radicals to take over Egypt?

    A5: Not immediately.  As in Tunisia, the protests appear to represent a largely leaderless movement with no clear agenda and no way to seize power.  Up to now, it appears firmly based in Egypt’s squeezed middle class.  It is possible that radicalism could fester in subsequent chaos, or that radical groups that are included in a broader coalition could come to control the government.  In many ways, the key decisions will be made over the next 6-12 months, as interest groups jockey for position and try to seize the opportunities created by change.

    Q6: Will what is happening in Egypt spread to other countries?

    A6: It could. Egypt has great weight in the Arab world.  It has more than three times the population of the next-largest Arab country, and Egyptian journalists and professionals—as well as laborers—work throughout the region. While some Arabs laugh that Egypt under Mubarak has become sclerotic and sluggish, they have grown comfortable with Egyptian stability.  Were such a paragon of stability to melt down, many will feel far more vulnerable.  Given that virtually every government in the Middle East is pro-American, a change in any government would have repercussions for the United States.

    Q7: Is Mubarak likely to seek a compromise with protesters?

    A7: Ben Ali tried to meet protesters' demands and was on a plane out of the country the next day. Mubarak's speech last night seemed to underline he did not intend to follow a similar path. Mubarak is also constrained by the fact that there are not broadly popular government figures whom he could elevate as a sign of change, and no popular generals, either. The army has respect as an institution, but it's not clear how he can use it as a tool to quell such broad popular protest.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Find More From:

Jon B. Alterman