Egypt: four ways forward

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The World

NEW YORK — No sure schematic shows the way forward for Egypt after over a week of protests, and it is clear neither the regime, nor the army, nor the protesters themselves possess a roadmap back to stability.

But drawing on historical precedent, Egypt’s own unique circumstances and what is known generally about the dynamics of popular uprisings, four outcomes — some likely, some less so — can be surmised.

The most likely has Mubarak handing power, slowly or in a de facto manner forced by his opponents, to a transitional figure who attempts to calm dissent and pledges to reform Egypt, all while protecting the old regime and retaining the main elements of Egyptian foreign policy. This route, however, has a high risk of rejection by an impassioned protest movement.

Given the uncertainties, Mubarak could still opt to pursue a pervasive crackdown, with brutal consequences in terms of human lives and Egypt’s reputation. Already, there are signs of orchestrated provocations typical of regimes in their dying days on the streets of Cairo.

A third, less violent (at least initially) option would involve a complete capitulation to a secular opposition figure like Mohamed ElBaradei, a bitter pill for Egyptian elites but perhaps one that allows them to negotiate an amnesty for their own abuses.

Finally, while unlikely to unfold quickly, the risk exists that (as in Iran in 1979) the broad-based uprising might be coopted by a highly organized minority with militant leanings — in Egypt’s case, the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian society, secular and sophisticated in its urban manifestations, would resist this, perhaps violently.

The Nile, of course, flows into the sea, and similarly Egypt’s tremors have and will shake realities beyond its borders. Here is a case-by-case a look, from most-likely to least-likely outcome, of how four scenarios might play out, with particular attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. influence and the balance of power in the Middle East, where Egypt is a bulwark against Iranian influence.

Scenario 1: Power passed to a military transitional government

  • Concessions could calm protests pending elections
  • Salvaging of Camp David accords
  • Avoids major collapse of Egyptian influence as a counterbalance to Iran
  • Avoids loss of key mediator between Palestinian factions
  • Prevents conflict between army and Interior Ministry forces
  • Allows mostly banned non-regime political opponents to organize as parties

Best case: A period of calm before elections could give currently fractious secular opposition parties time to organize and form strategic alliances — making the formation of a stable democratic government more likely.

Worst case: Lingering resentment could lead to a new, more violent round of protests if the transition isn’t seen as genuine or election and reform pledges slip.

Scenario 2: Mubarak digs in, launches violent crackdown

  • U.S. military aid suspension; Tiananmen-like images nonetheless tar U.S support for regime
  • Risk of serious resurgence of domestic Egyptian terror or violence
  • Risk of fissures between Egyptian security services/army, during which the military sides with protestors
  • Further discrediting of U.S. role in Israel-Palestine talks
  • Tremendous propaganda victory for Iran following its decision to crush its own dissenters

Best case: Sustains Camp David peace, provides cautionary tale to other MENA protest movements.

Worst case: Outright civil war, widespread terrorism, severe economic dislocation, damaged U.S. influence.

Scenario 3: Secular coalition government emerges immediately

  • U.S. policy review, aid flows pending unexpected moves with regard to Israel/Hamas.
  • Egyptian regional credibility would soar at expense of Iran, Syria, but pressure would also be ratcheted up on “pro-Western” autocratic regimes like the Saudis, GCC monarchies and Jordan.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood’s non-violent moderates (yes, they exist) would be bolstered.
  • Pending election would discourage Israeli complacency with regard to Palestinians.

Best case: Establishment of democracy could place Egypt at the head of the Arab world for the first time since the Camp David agreement in 1979. In this case, Egypt could have a modernizing, moderating influence on the region and provide a good model for reform for other countries.

Worst case: A weak secular government could become a stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood’s hardliners, which may bide their time as a coalition partner and then choose a moment to strike. (There is historical precedent here: The first, “democratic government” of post-revolutionary Russia in 1917, overthrown by Bolsheviks after six months.) A defeated “old regime” could exacerbate this if they use their lingering influence on Egyptian institutions — especially the economy — to undermine the new government.

Scenario 4: Islamic state/Muslim Brotherhood coopts rising

  • Significant risk of civil unrest, similar to Lebanon, as secular and significant Coptic Christian population resist this fate, and much would depend on the character of the Brotherhood regime.
  • Possible abrogation of Camp David Accords and ejection of U.N. Sinai peacekeeping force (the only one in the world that includes American troops). This would have dire strategic consequences for Israel.
  • Risk of a significant backlash from Egypt’s officer class, who will lose their $1.3 billion Camp David “stipend” of U.S. military aid. Egypt’s military, the 10th largest in the world, produces most of its American-supplied weaponry locally on license, but paying the huge army would suddenly become a great deal more difficult.
  • Immediate opening of the Egyptian border at Rafah to Gaza, recognition of Hamas as legitimate government of Palestinian Authority.
  • Additional isolation of Jordan as last Arab regime with at peace with Israel.
  • Bolstering of the Sudanese regime (in the north), as well as a general weakening of the Egyptian-Saudi bloc opposing rising Iranian influence in the region.
  • Possible resumption of Nasserite threats to free movement of shipping through the Suez Canal
  • Resumption of dormant Egyptian nuclear weapons program.
  • Loss of important ally against Somali piracy in Red Sea.

Best case: Egyptian society might prove highly resistant to imposition of Islamic law even if they have no great use for Camp David. The Muslim Brotherhood, long martyred by Mubarak’s tyranny, could discredit itself quickly once in office.

Worst case: Israeli fears of being surrounded once again by enemies could provoke pre-emptive war, particularly if the Egyptians pursue an Iran-like nuclear research program or station large military formations in the Suez, a move forbidden by Camp David.

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