The news columns and airwaves are filled with speculation about what may happen next in Egypt. Egyptian president/strong man Hosni Mubarak is hanging on by his fingernails, having dismissed virtually everyone (except his former colleagues and supporters in the military) to try to assuage the throngs on the Cairo streets, but it is clear that the demonstrations will not end until he physically steps down. What remains of this phase of the process of change in Egypt (the removal of the old guard) is mostly negotiating the terms of departure.
This in itself is proving tricky, for two reasons. One is about what happens to Mubarak physically in the process. The president said in his interview with ABC News this week that he does not intend to leave the country–that he plans to die on Egyptian soil–but his detractors insist he must physically leave the scene–depart Egypt. This could all be solved either by letting him go somewhere in internal exile within Egypt, but the demonstrators do not trust him enough to want him to do so. A temporary exit from the country–an overseas “vacation” that included assurances he could return into retirementat some point–might satisfy the demonstrators, but Mubarak is likely to balk, for fear (probably well deserved) that a new government would renege on the promise to let him return to die on Egyptian soil. The other possibilities–he is simply allowed to stay, serve out his term, and then retire somewhere within the country or that he be consigned to permanent exile–will not please both sides. Fortunately, no one has yet suggested seriously a Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein solution.
The other tricky part of the equation is that the uprising (and, at this point, it is pretentious to call it more) is headless. Neither what is left of the Mubarak government, the Egyptian military, or international intermediaries can negotiate with a quarter-million person assemblage. This is apparently a true “people’s” movement. The good news is that it apparently represents popular sentiment among a lot of Egyptians; the not so good news is that it has no leaders with whom to discuss what happens next. It is not at all clear how much of the popular will is represented by those trying to set up a process for orderly succession.
The headless nature of the movement is, of course, a result of the kind of regime that Mubarak has run and which we in the West (including prominently the United States and Israel in the current context) have at least implicitly endorsed with continuing diplomatic and economic support. A central feature of that authoritarian regime has been the systematic elimination of all forms of political opposition, almost all of which is either dead, imprisoned, or forced into an exile that has separated them from the people. The American and Israeli government have turned an essentially blind eye toward all this, because Mubarak has played a positive role in promoting a more stable (which is to say not anti-American) region that does not threaten Israel. Mubarak has been”the devil we know,” and now we are looking to see who the devil we may not know is. Unfortunately, supporting Mubarak has meant we have also supported his elimination of successors (other than his unpopular son Gamal), so our ability to identify successors is limited by the paucity of obvious choices. This also, of course, means it is hard for us to choose our own personal preference for the succession.
Lacking someone whom we would like to see come to power is not entirely bad. The uprising has not turned anti-American (except, interestingly, among Mubarak “supporters” among the demonstrators, most of whom are almost certainly government employees) to this point, and one reason is that there is no American choice around which to organize resistance. The case is even clearer with regard to Israeli preferences: I cannot imagine any more effective way to to discredit an aspirant to power in Egypt than to bestow on him or her with the Israeli seal of approval. We have kept our mouths shut about successors, which probably means that the popular will is less likely to produce a violently anti-American successor than it would if we found another Ahmed Chalabi and tried to promote him. It also means we are rolling the dice more on the outcome, but that is probably better than acting in such a way as to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of an outcome that injures our interests. Although they will have to swallow hard to admit it, the same is true for the Israelis.
The unsettling part of all this is to leave us as interested bystanders in how this all evolves. To this point, the Obama administration has been entirely appropriately restrained in its role, admonishing Mubarak to give up power and the demonstrators to remain peaceful. Nick Kristof captured the public side of this approach in his “We are all Egyptians” column earlier in the week in the New York Times.
In this unsettled atmosphere, one can only speculate about where this all is heading: whence Egypt? In today’s (2/6/11) Washington Post, the headline of Janine Zacharia’s column suggests possible analogies with Gdansk, Poland (a true popular uprising with a spreading democratic outcome), Beijing (a suppression like thay in 1989), or Tehran (an Islamist fundamentalist outcome), and Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond suggests a South African possibility (gradual democratic takeover). To the extent analogies are ever very precise, Gdansk or South Africa are clearly more desirable from our vantage point, Bejing and especially Tehran clearly less desirable.
Which way will it all play out? Will Cairo turn out analogously to recent predecessors, or will it be sui generis? I have a feeling the latter is likely to be the case, but I don’t feel qualified to predict what that will mean. And probably, those in the middle of the process don’t know either.