Special Commentary: Egypt’s Lotus Revolution- Scenarios for a New Middle East

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s February 1 announcement that he would step down at the end of his term in September but would not leave Egypt (“I will die on its soil”) seems to indicate Mubarak and his military colleagues are seeking enough time to consolidate the power of the military-security structure that controls Egypt in the face of massive demonstrations calling for political change. His pledge to address corruption and other issues probably comes too late in his 30-year term as president to mollify angry protesters demanding his resignation, exile, or worse.

The popular uprising in Egypt, whether it succeeds or not, is already guaranteed to mark a turning point in the Middle East’s political and geo-strategic balance.  However, after 58 years of rule under a succession of four Egyptian generals (Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak), Egypt’s military-security structure has deep roots – changing this would require something on the scale of the French Revolution.  Many powerful people stand to lose everything should a popular revolt go too far and there are few signs of unrest so far among the more traditional fellahin of rural Egypt. The following scenarios are all directions the current unrest could take, each with great significance for the future of the Middle East:

•    A Military Takeover

While the demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria have been largely peaceful, the security situation in the strategic Sinai is beginning to collapse, with armed Bedouin assaulting police stations, killing policemen and seizing weapons. This or an upsurge of violence in the cities could be used as justification for taking control. This might discourage other Arab risings initially, but if Mubarak loyalists take over Mubarak’s assured gentle landing in comfortable exile would not endear the new regime with the public and the revolution will only be postponed. This scenario would result in the least damage to Egypt’s official relationship with Israel but could cause strain with the United States which is newly committed to a real democratic transition.  Individuals to watch are Military Intelligence Chief and new Vice-President Umar Sulayman (who may try to hold onto the presidency in the event of a Mubarak resignation), Field Marshal and new Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, and Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General  Samy Enan. This scenario could get messy if it was opposed by the public and required military force to impose. The genie of fraternization between the largely conscript army and the demonstrators as witnessed in recent days will be difficult to return to the bottle.A move by junior officers to seize power (as in 1952) cannot be ruled out, but the ethnic dynamic (Arab vs. Turko-Circassian elite) that drove the revolution of 1952 no longer exists.

•    A Military Takeover Followed by a Transition to Democracy

This has been a common pattern in African nations in the last decade, though all too often the coup leader resigns and wins an overwhelming victory at the first “democratic” polls. Hosni Mubarak is not a charismatic leader, but he does control a widespread and pervasive patronage system that has preserved his personal leadership for three decades. If the military-security structure can be assured of the wholesale transfer of this system to a new leader (and member of the elite), Hosni Mubarak suddenly becomes irrelevant – even an impediment to the continued existence of the elite. Gamal Mubarak, without any support base, is finished even if the government returns.

The best analogy here would be the 1985 Sudanese military coup in which General Swar al-Dahab took power only after a popular rising in Sudan ousted President Field Marshal Ja’afar Nimeiri, who went into exile in Egypt. After the restoration of state security and a short transitional period, Swar al-Dahab resigned and allowed free elections (see al-Arabiya, January 20).

•    Mubarak Maintains Power

This scenario is not as unlikely as it is being treated in parts of the international media. The withdrawal of the police from city streets may be part of a strategy to allow the security situation to deteriorate to the point the public will demand the return of law and order, naturally in the person of Mubarak, who would require the support of the army in this scenario. The widely disliked police, who would have the most to lose in any transition of power, would likely support Mubarak. Nevertheless, nothing short of major concessions, the abandonment of the scheme to make Mubarak’s son Gamal his successor and a restoration of some food subsidies (as has been done in Algeria in the face of local protests) would be required to make this work. Real and substantial change would be unlikely, however, and the revolution would again only be postponed.

•    Democratic Elections Introduce a New Government

The heavily entrenched military-security structure that dominates the government and much of the business community will strongly oppose this scenario unless they are assured a sympathetic candidate will win.

•    Islamists Take Control of Egypt through Elections

While many reports suggest a Muslim Brotherhood takeover is imminent, results from the last relatively free elections in which they were able to contend indicate the MB has the support of roughly 20% of the electorate.  The Muslim Brothers’ armed wing was dissolved long ago and there are no indications of the movement turning to violence in the current turmoil. Having committed to a policy of building an Islamic state through grass-roots activism after top-down efforts to seize power in Egypt nearly resulted in the destruction of the movement in the 1960s, the Brothers are in the midst of an ideological dilemma – stay the course and possibly be left behind or ignore the movement’s principles to try and maneuver the movement into a leading position in the effort to overthrow the government.  The Brothers are as likely to split over this issue as they are to become a late player in the uprising. For now, the movement is calling for the installation of the chief of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, Farouk Ahmad Sultan, as president, and has affirmed its intention of honoring Egypt’s international treaties (Ikhwanweb.com, February 1).

The Salafist groups in Egypt are committed to their belief citizens should not oppose a Muslim leader and have taken little, if any, part so far in the demonstrations. The Muslim Brothers, on the other hand, did not initially take part in the demonstrations, but have joined them now in an effort to maintain some influence on events.

Though relatively unlikely, an Islamist victory at the polls would lead to three possibilities:

a) Countercoup – The Algerian Scenario: When the FIS appeared to be winning the Algerian general elections in 1991, the Algerian military moved quickly to seize the government with U.S. and French support. The United States may similarly decide Egypt, as the leading nation of the Arab world, is simply too important to leave to Islamists of any stripe.

b) A moderate Islamist government willing to work with the West as well as the East, on the pattern of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (increasingly the Islamist’s model of choice).

c) An Islamist government sacrifices much needed American subsidies to break with the West, renege on the treaties with Israel and provide a haven to extremists. This scenario remains the most unlikely at the moment. While the existing relationship with Israel will be re-examined by almost any new government, a break with the West would have little appeal to most Egyptians.

•    The repeal of Egypt’s Emergency Laws (in force for most of the last three decades) by a new government and/or a security collapse allows Egyptian militants in exile to re-enter Egypt

Egypt’s military and intelligence services are highly likely to survive any transition of power largely intact and will continue to resist the infiltration of foreign-based militants or a local resumption of the ruthless 1990s war between Islamist militants and Egyptian security services that ended with the disruption of the Islamist networks and the expulsion of remaining militant leaders such as Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Returning militants would not find a very warm welcome from Egypt’s existing Islamist factions, most of which have abandoned the concept of seizing power by force.

•    Election of a Secular Government

Egypt’s opposition parties are badly organized, poorly financed and have had little opportunity to build a popular base – hence their general inability to use current uprising to their benefit. Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is clearly finished in its current incarnation – having relied on rigged elections for too long, it has neglected to maintain a popular base. NDP offices, including their headquarters in Cairo, have been the target of arson attacks. The party does, however, have a strong political machine fueled by patronage and may easily reform under a new name and leadership with few changes to its structure and policies. Former International Atomic Energy Agency chairman Muhammad ElBaradei has returned to Egypt, but many in Egypt know little or nothing about him and he has been no more successful in harnessing the popular anger than other opposition figures.

•    Government Rejection of Change Leads to Armed Revolt

Al-Qaeda is completely out of the picture at the moment and the utter disruption of militant networks by Egypt’s pervasive security services makes it unlikely al-Qaeda will be able to influence events in the short term.  Unlike other Arab states like Yemen and Iraq, the population is largely unarmed, but some elements are now seizing police weapons. However, since Arabization of the military (previously dominated by non-Arab military professionals) most male Egyptians over 20 have completed military service and know how to use weapons.  In the Sinai, where the Bedouin are armed, the police have evacuated large parts of the region.  The Bedouin are now on the offensive, attacking police stations and killing officers to seize more weapons. The low-level rebellion in the strategically important Sinai may be about to explode.

•    Egypt’s Revolt Creates Political Convulsions Across the Arab Middle East

From an internal point of view, most scenarios point to the existing power structure in Egypt making superficial changes in most areas, though it is very likely an new regime will attempt to improve ties with the larger Arab and Muslim world, from which Egypt has been largely estranged for over three decades due to its accommodation with Israel.  The wild card is the degree to which Egypt’s uprising both inspires and feeds from other popular revolts in the Arab world.

Mass demonstrations spread to Khartoum last weekend.  Sudanese President Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir may be at the height of his unpopularity in Sudan despite a massive triumph In recent elections, having lost much of his traditional support as the man who has allowed South Sudan to separate His status as an alleged war criminal wanted by the International Criminal Court is an embarrassment even for members of the ruling party. In the event of mass demonstrations in Khartoum, watch for a military provocation on the new border with the South to enable strict security measures in the capital. These type of uprisings are not new in Sudan – Generals Mahmoud Abboud (1964) and Ja’afar Nimeiri (1985) were both removed by popular revolt in the Sudan.

Algeria might follow the Egyptian and Tunisian lead, but the Algiers government has warned such protests will not be tolerated. Nevertheless, there have already been significant demonstrations in Algeria and there are now signs that the Kabylia Berber revolt could restart (Kabyle.com, January 30).   There have been ten attempts at self-immolation so far in protest of the regime (Ennahar [Algiers], January 30). Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could seek to exploit this violence as many of their bases are in the Kabyle Mountains. Smaller demonstrations and even acts of self-immolation have taken place in Jordan, Yemen and Mauritania. Libya would also appear to be a prime candidate for new protests.

A U.S. pro-democracy stance will have little influence on the protestors – the riot equipment, batons and tear gas of the security forces are all U.S. supplied, as are the F-16 fighter-jets making menacing low passes over Cairo. Egyptians are well aware Washington is the Mubarak regime’s greatest sponsor. However, U.S. influence in the Egyptian officer corps is strong and Egypt must deal carefully with the United States or risk losing important food aid. American aid and subsidies are important to Egypt, which is undergoing a food price crisis that is in large part fuelling the unrest.  A new government could not afford to break with U.S. without losing a major part of its budget.

Israel might have ideological difficulties in coping with a new Egyptian democracy after boasting for many years they were the only democracy in the Middle East. Opposing democracy would be a contradiction in Israeli foreign policy (see their support for the Iranian democracy demonstrations), but the Mubarak dictatorship has been the guarantor of Israeli security as no Arab nation would go to war with Israel without Egypt’s participation.

Any successor to Mubarak will find it extremely difficult to maintain Egypt’s current and highly unpopular level of cooperation with Israel against the Palestinians of Gaza. The best Israel could hope for is a new Egyptian military-security regime that would demand only token changes in the current agreements in hope of a local propaganda victory.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the author of A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War, (Praeger Security International, 2006), the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world and is the managing editor of Jamestown’s Global Terrorism Analysis publications.