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