Understanding Revolutionary Egypt

The world was shocked to see the frustration in Cairo boil over the past two weeks. FP gathered a group of Egypt experts to discuss how we should adjust to this rapidly shifting reality.

Nathan J. Brown: Not Even a Genie Could Have Seen This Coming

J. Scott Carpenter: This Revolution Isn't Over

Steven Brooke: Don't Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Shadi Hamid: The "Islamist Dilemma" Is No Dilemma At All

Daniel Brumberg: The Failures of Washington's Egypt Debate   

For so long, Egypt seemed impervious to change. In the last week, the country has changed by the hour. 

A member of the Islamist opposition once told me the following joke: A man was walking along the beach in Alexandria when he saw a lantern. He picked it up, rubbed it, and out popped a genie. "You have one wish!" the genie exclaimed. The man thought and replied "I love New York! Build me a bridge from my front door to the middle of New York City so I can go back and forth at my pleasure." 

The genie scowled: "Please give me a real wish that I can make come true."  The man was disappointed for only a brief moment before he said, "Before I die, I want to see a different president of Egypt." The genie thought for a minute and replied, "All right. Should I make the bridge one lane or two?"

What was too much for a genie was similarly unimaginable for ordinary citizens. The sorts of protests that quickly mushroomed since last week were not new; what was new was only how quickly they have brought the regime to the brink of collapse.

Did anyone see this coming? Those who follow Egypt closely were well aware of the authoritarian and sometimes thuggish nature of the regime, and also that most Egyptians viewed their rulers with great cynicism and contempt. It was no secret that when push came to shove, only top officials, hacks, and paid hooligans would rally to the defense of a system widely viewed as thuggish and corrupt.

But nobody expected push to come to shove at any particular time or in any particular way. In fact, past efforts by opponents to find a chink in the regime's armor seemed to fizzle. The electoral system absorbed great energy and attention but produced meager results. Protests were widespread but remained localized; efforts to produce a more coordinated national effort failed.

Let's be clear: The Mubarak regime is only on the brink, not past it. Its strategy has finally emerged. Part of that strategy -- spreading mayhem with swords, clubs, camels, and horses -- is obvious. But the regime is also sketching out a political path, which involves splitting the opposition, offering limited reform, and threatening massive disorder. 

Mubarak's speech on Tuesday night, in which he announced that he would not seek another term as president, also contained the seeds of a potential deal that could co-opt Egypt's officially sanctioned opposition parties and leave the protesters in Tahrir Square out in the cold. In a seemingly arcane legal point, Mubarak also called on court judgments on the last parliamentary election to be honored.  "I demand parliament adhere to the word of the judiciary and its verdicts concerning the latest cases which have been legally challenged," he said.

Those who are the victim of electoral fraud in Egypt are often able to win court decisions supporting their charges. However, it is the prerogative of the parliament, according to the constitution, to enforce those court orders -- and past parliaments have simply refused to do so.   

If Mubarak's pledge were to be fulfilled, then perhaps half of the seats in the parliament would be vacated with new elections held to fill them. And that would give the opposition a chance to play a role in negotiating a new constitutional arrangement in the reconfigured parliament.

Such a step would present the opposition with a dilemma: Would it seize the opportunity to run in such elections and gain a significant voice in the amendment process? The Muslim Brotherhood and leadership of the demonstrators would quite sensibly reject this offer as too little, too late. But Egypt's legal opposition parties have fallen into a craven state, and some might swallow the bait.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Nathan J. Brown: Not Even a Genie Could Have Seen This Coming

J. Scott Carpenter: This Revolution Isn't Over

Steven Brooke: Don't Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Shadi Hamid: The "Islamist Dilemma" Is No Dilemma At All 

Daniel Brumberg: The Failures of Washington's Egypt Debate  

I agree with Nathan that many of us saw the current upheaval in Egypt coming, but only in the sense that a California-based seismologist predicts the "Big One." He may be kept up at night worrying about it -- but most Californians just go about their business. Sometimes it's tough for us Cassandras.

The most significant indicators for massive unrest have been plentiful in Egypt of late, however. The number of labor strikes in 2010 far exceeded the number of strikes in the past five years combined, for example. And the military has been in the business of baking and distributing bread for nearly two years. Hardly encouraging signs.

Two anecdotes from the past year symbolize for me the growing disconnect between the Egyptian government and its people. The first is from Ahmed Ezz, the Egyptian steel magnate and grand strategist for the ruling National Democratic Party who has now reportedly been detained. This past April, Ezz had a Marie-Antoinette moment, which revealed his utter disconnect from the concerns of regular Egyptians. When the government made the decision to kill all the pigs in Cairo -- to avoid swine flu, which has nothing to do with swine -- the trash in the streets began to pile up. When asked why people weren't seeing the products of the economic growth that the government constantly touted, Ezz answered, "But of course they are! The Egyptian people are doing so well they're generating more trash than we can pick up!"

Then this past November in a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, I asked how the pain of subsidy reform could be absorbed by the people without achieving greater public buy-in. He answered, "Elections are coming, and we fully expect to get a mandate." The government's disdain for its people had clearly reached new heights, as evidenced in the deeply flawed elections that then took place.

Nathan also asks whether the regime can survive. Although the next 24 hours are pivotal, the short answer is: Of course! 

Much has been written about how protesters have "broken the fear barrier" on the streets of Cairo. However, there has been no fundamental change in the nature of the ruling regime. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak remains in power. All the institutions necessary for affecting constitutional change remain squarely in his hands, including the parliament. The military has tried to walk the thin line between neutrality and complicity in the chaos currently seizing the country -- and, in the last day or two, seems to be falling on the wrong side of that divide. The regime also has maintained its monopoly on force and its control of the phone system, the Internet, and national TV.  

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood is contributing to the government's cause by announcing that the provisional government -- if there is one -- will immediately abrogate the peace treaty with Israel.

Of course, a managed transition also remains possible. But with each passing day without Mubarak stepping down, it becomes much more likely that the regime will find a way to reinvent and reassert itself. Eight months is an eon in these circumstances.

A prolonged period with the current regime in place risks the possibility that the government will renege on its promised concessions, even Mubarak's promise not to seek another term. I would just remind everyone of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's dramatic reversal following his announcement in 2005 that he would not seek another term -- after a weeklong government-organized protest begging him to run, he tearfully agreed to remain in office. If the conditions are ripe, Mubarak could just be convinced to also remain in office by similar displays of manufactured loyalty.

J. Scott Carpenter is a Keston Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Nathan J. Brown: Not Even a Genie Could Have Seen This Coming

J. Scott Carpenter: This Revolution Isn't Over

Steven Brooke: Don't Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Shadi Hamid: The "Islamist Dilemma" Is No Dilemma At All  

Daniel Brumberg: The Failures of Washington's Egypt Debate  

Had I been asked a few months ago to predict which Middle Eastern regimes were least likely to be shaken by protests, Egypt and Tunisia would have been near the top of my list. The undercurrents of frustration were apparent to anyone paying attention, but the brutality of the Egyptian security services and the regime's well-honed skills of sidelining, co-opting, or jailing opposition figures seemed well up to the challenge of managing both popular unrest and pre-empting the emergence of political challengers.

The protests of Jan. 25 shook the regime, but the incredible, vicious scenes of the last few days have shown that it doesn't intend to give up without a fight. While Mubarak's concessions -- appointing Omar Suleiman as vice president, pledging to not seek re-election in the fall, the promise of constitutional amendments -- were the carrots, unleashing the baltigiyeen (thugs) was the stick. The ultimate aim is to encourage members of the opposition to defect, to divide-and-rule. The regime-sponsored violence of the last few days also sent a not-so-subtle message to the Egyptian "silent majority" that supporting political reform means further chaos and violence.

It is also important to note, however, that we in the West are also being manipulated. The specter of Islamist rule has been enough to cause many to question whether Egyptians are ready for democracy. This is just the most recent iteration of a problem that has paralyzed our policy toward the Middle East for years -- what Shadi Hamid has called the "Islamist Dilemma." We want democracy, but we fear an Islamist victory.

A crucial part of getting past this roadblock is to attempt to figure out what the strategy of the Islamists actually is. I realize that it is difficult to forecast the future, but it is unlikely that the Brotherhood will be in any position to unilaterally determine Egypt's foreign policy. Nor, given the sensitivities of these issues, is there much evidence that they want to.

The Brotherhood will have a say in any transitional government, as it should, but it will be one voice among many. In this sense, the movement's behavior will closely resemble how it has behaved over the past couple of decades -- cooperation and coordination with other opposition parties from across the ideological spectrum. It is also important to note that the calculus of any democratic Egyptian government will be informed by any number of external factors, including the need to preserve aid flows from Western countries.  

I hope that we aren't getting too far ahead of ourselves by discussing these issues, but I fear that we are. Any meaningful reform is unlikely as long as the government is headed by Mubarak or his cronies. But if nothing else, the events of the last few days have demonstrated in stunning clarity the brutality with which we have purchased stability, and offer us the chance to work toward a policy better able to harmonize our interests and ideals.

Steven Brooke is a PhD student in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Nathan J. Brown: Not Even a Genie Could Have Seen This Coming

J. Scott Carpenter: This Revolution Isn't Over

Steven Brooke: Don't Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Shadi Hamid: The "Islamist Dilemma" Is No Dilemma At All

Daniel Brumberg: The Failures of Washington's Egypt Debate  

That the Egyptian uprising happened is not particularly surprising. Nearly everyone was at least vaguely aware that it would happen -- if not now, then later. Unless you happen to believe that Arabs are uniquely tolerant of dictatorship, there was little reason to think the Arab world would continue along its course of unbridled autocracy forever.

That said, the shift was more sudden than any of us thought. I was in Egypt covering the Nov. 28 parliamentary elections - quite possibly the most rigged in the country's history. In Medinat Nasr and Shubra, I talked to the Muslim Brotherhood "whips" (the representatives who count the votes). They ran me through all the violations, one by one. They didn't seem angry as much as resigned. 

Today, though, the Brotherhood finds itself in a markedly different situation. They are the country's largest, best organized opposition force at a time when anti-regime protesters are searching for leadership, and not finding it. But this leadership void has also placed  Egypt's Islamists in the unenviable position of being a potentially decisive force just as the world becomes increasingly nervous at the prospect of their rise.

The Brotherhood -- the slow, bumbling giant it is -- is unlikely to fully awaken just yet. The group has always believed that it had history on its side. Whenever I would ask Brotherhood leader Esam al-Erian why they didn't seem to have a clear strategy for change, he would just sit back and say, "we are patient." Now, it knows for sure: One day, Egypt will become democratic. And one day it will be in government, although most likely as junior partner in a liberal-leftist coalition.

The United States, then, should be reassessing its outdated, ineffective posture toward the Brotherhood. Despite establishing an interagency working group on political Islam and having a point person in the State Department's Policy Planning office, the Obama Administration, somewhat remarkably, seems clueless about the Brotherhood. When asked about the group, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered up information that was at least two decades old, suggesting that the Brotherhood hadn't renounced violence or committed itself to the democratic process -- both steps that it took decades prior.

Similarly, on January 30, Secretary Clinton said: "We obviously want to see people who are truly committed to democracy, not imposing any ideology on Egyptians." This is an odd thing to say considering that for the past several decades, the U.S. has supported and funded an Egyptian regime that was truly uncommitted to democracy.

The "Islamist dilemma" is less of a dilemma than we think. We may, as Steven Brooke says, be getting ahead of ourselves. After all, there's no real reason to think the Muslim Brotherhood will take the reigns of Egyptian foreign policy anytime soon. As I lay out in this recent Journal of Democracy article, contrary to their image as power-obsessed, Islamist groups across the region, in fact, deliberately lose elections. They do so for a simple reason: They have little interest in governing, at least at this juncture.

But, eventually, they may. This means that we should use this opportunity in Egypt to advance a bold, forward-looking - but admittedly risky - effort to finally resolve our "Islamist dilemma." Once we do that, we can start to fashion a strong pro-democracy vision in the region free of the internal contradictions that have, for too long, paralyzed U.S. policy. 

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.


Nathan J. Brown: Not Even a Genie Could Have Seen This Coming

J. Scott Carpenter: This Revolution Isn't Over

Steven Brooke: Don't Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

Shadi Hamid: The "Islamist Dilemma" Is No Dilemma At All

Daniel Brumberg: The Failures of Washington's Egypt Debate

The virtual ink being spilled on the question of Islamist participation in Egypt's insurrection (and hopefully democratic transition) shows two closely related failures of the discourse currently underway in Washington: First, the "Islamist dilemma" is invariably defined as an American issue -- as "our" problem or even "our" opportunity. This American-centric view rarely poses the crucial question: How do Egyptians themselves evaluate Islamism and Islamists, and how will their perceptions affect the choices of citizens and activists in the coming weeks?

The second failure is policy makers, analysts and (of course) pundits' inability to place the debate on Islamism into a broader analytical framework, one that will provide a roadmap for U.S. government action and, more importantly, help Egyptian leaders navigate the dangerous shoals of a democratic transition.

Every successful transition requires at least two things: First, a readiness and capacity of opposition groups and leaders to unite around a common set of rules and procedures -- not merely for the transition, but also for the institutional and legal framework that will form the basis of a new democratic order. Second, it requires a readiness by the opposition -- based on their shared political vision -- to reach out to elements in the ancien regime and secure their support (and protection) in institutionalizing these rules.

It is far harder to achieve these two goals in societies divided over existential issues of national identity than in societies struggling with tangible grievances such as economic disparities or the allocation of political power. But precisely because fundamental issues, such as the place of religion in public life, raise the stakes and risks of democratic change in ways that make the most vulnerable groups nervous, it is essential that institutional mechanisms for negotiating democratic rules be established quickly.

If this is going to happen in Egypt, we must begin by recognizing that what we are seeing in today's Egypt is a struggle of citizens and activists to define their place in an emerging but as yet embryonic political society. In this regard, Islamists certainly have a comparative organizational advantage over their non-Islamist competitors. This advantage stems from their access to mosques and charitable institutions, and what is more, from the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had carved out a sphere influence within the state under Mubarak's regime.

Indeed, Egypt's autocracy worked as a kind of protection racket. The regime allowed -- and often discretely supported-mainstream Islamist groups. This patronage was offered not only in an effort to placate these groups, but also to frighten secular intellectuals, businessmen, women's groups, labor organizers and professionals into supporting the regime. Muslim Brotherhood activists were often happy to play this game. This is one reason why they often failed to aggressively pursue political power through elections since, at the end of the day, elections (and parliaments) were not the primary arenas through which they sought influence.

But if the protection racket that constituted a key pillar of the autocracy is disintegrating, the transition to a competitive democracy could easily break down unless Islamists and non-Islamists agree to democratic protections sufficiently robust such that all key groups and players will take the risk of abandoning the unstable safety net provided by the old regime.

Over the last few years I have worked with the United States Institute of Peace -- in concert with academic centers and NGOs based in the United States and Egypt -- to encourage Islamists and non-Islamists to envision just such a common political project and, in so doing, defy the scare tactics that the regime used to maintain power. But while our meetings brought various voices around the table-including members of the Brotherhood -- our participants had great difficulty overcoming long-standing fears and concerns regarding such issues as the implementation of shariah law, women's rights, the mosque-state relationship, and other elemental questions.

The exhilaration of mass mobilization in Tahrir Square and other public venues has helped Egyptians momentarily overcome these divisions. But now the hard work is at hand: Political leaders must emerge, and more importantly, they must grasp the basic choices that will advance non-violent (or "orderly," in the parlance of U.S. diplomats) democratic change. This will require peace-making within the opposition, and between the opposition and elements of the previous regime. And on both these scores -- as the Obama administration recognizes -- the Egyptian military has a key role to play, as does the U.S. government and the democracy assistance organizations it supports. But these are topics for another day.



Hold the Applause

Revolutions like Egypt's most often end badly.

Given the high degree of euphoria and romanticism in the coverage by both Western and Arab media of recent popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, it would be useful for everyone to take a few deep breaths and remind ourselves that revolutions often look very attractive in the beginning. Then they usually go through some really bad periods; the French reign of terror and the decade of political turmoil that followed, the crushing oppression of Soviet communism in Russia, and the unfinished misery of Iranians.

I would like to be optimistic, and there are some positive signs in Tunisia and Egypt. Both countries have strong traditions of national pride, histories of constitutionalism, cultural riches, and a middle class of educated men and women. So far, the armed forces in both countries have shown a degree of professionalism and discipline that have earned the respect of both popular forces and key civilian government institutions. Both have had respectable economic growth rates at a time of global economic distress. Regrettably, however, there are also major factors working against a happy outcome in the next several years.

Removing an unpopular dictator, however entrenched, is far easier than putting a stable political structure in place afterward. The success of this second step stands between passionate embrace of popular overthrow of an authoritarian ruler and prolonged chaos followed by embrace of a new tyranny or anarchy.

Imagine the following, very plausible scenario for what Egypt and Tunisia will look like three months from now:

Instead of the high food prices that spurred the initial protests in both countries, there are serious food shortages. By some accounts, this is already beginning. Bear in mind that there are real prospects of global food shortages this year and next.

Tourists are not even thinking about coming back. The tourism establishments in both countries carry out mass layoffs in this labor-intensive industry. The masses of unemployed join the demonstrators already in the street and gradually the fervor for freedom of assembly and free media is surpassed by more urgent demands for basic necessities.

The private sector stops making investments in Tunisia and Egypt. This is already happening. Look at the investor newsletters in the United States and Europe. Look at the bond downgrades by Moody's, Fitch, and S&P. Egyptian and Tunisian capital flee their countries for safer environments, even at far lower profit margins. There is an Arab proverb which says, "Capital is a coward. It flees to security."

The European Union, despite being Tunisia's major market for exports (80 percent), tourists, and surplus labor, does not rise to the challenge. Remember that Europe is going through its own recession and a series of financial crises. Given how long it took Europe to come to the aid of Greece, Tunisians shouldn't hold their breath.

The U.S. Congress, increasingly in a tightfisted mood for plenty of good reasons (as well as bad ones), cuts aid to an Egyptian government that no longer measures up to all the demands that individual members of Congress consider to be paramount. Does the new government say the right things regarding Israel or Iran? Does it cooperate with the U.S. military, the Treasury Department and the FBI on counterterrorism measures? U.S. aid to Tunisia ended decades ago, and Congress will be in no mood to help a struggling newly elected but untested government. Wealthier Arab governments do not fill the gap of declining private-sector investment and U.S. aid.

Layoffs of workers accelerate. There is a downward spiral of violence by increasingly desperate workers, vigilantism by middle class families striving to protect what they have worked hard to build, and repression by government forces.

Finally, even the most progressive political reforms do not deliver the security and basic necessities that people decide they need more at the moment than political liberty. A free press is wonderful, but if it is too dangerous to walk down the street to buy a newspaper, the value is questionable. A man without a job with a family to feed often has a hard time focusing on the long-term benefits of democracy.

So are we in for Somalia on the Mediterranean? Probably not that bad. But, along with the enthusiasm that is all too natural for both the demonstrators and the representatives of Western media reporting, breathlessly, from Tahrir Square, let us take a large grain of salt. The U.S. media and armchair theoreticians of democracy in the United States will be able to walk away at the end of the day. The Tunisians and Egyptians will not. And the implications for the long-term interests of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East, as well as the United States and Western Europe, are not yet clear.

As a student in Egypt in 1965, I participated in a mass demonstration in Tahrir Square. I should note that it was in support of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the police did not use tear gas against us. Still, it was thrilling. My heart tells me to cheer on the current demonstrators. My head, and my experience in the region, say that Barack Obama's administration has been right not to leap to the barricades. The United States can nudge and encourage, but the people of these countries, not just the autocratic rulers, will resist and resent a Made in America label.

This week, I was reminded of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, a French diplomat of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who served Louis XIV, Napoleon, and the Restoration monarchies and knew a few things about revolutions. Talleyrand instructed young French diplomats: "Surtout, pas trop de zèle." Literally, don't be too zealous. Today, we would say, "Curb your enthusiasm."

It's still good advice.