The New Egypt – More Questions Than Answers?

Friday, February 11 was a momentous day in Egypt, in the Middle East and possibly for the world.  How momentous and in what way is by no means clear. In this article, we seek to understand what happened on Friday and what it might mean for the near term and beyond. Naturally, we come up with more questions than answers.

The Pharoh is Dead, Long Live the Regime

This obvious paraphrase of the old English succession announcement seems to apply to the succession in Egypt. Mubarak, the strong man who wielded power for over 30 years, was for all practical purposes put out to pasture. His trusted No. 2, Omar Suleiman, is also in disgrace. But his No. 3 Tantawi and No. 4 Annan have succeeded Mubarak & Suleiman. Both Tantawi and Annan have been compatriots and confidants of Mr. Mubarak for ever. They carried out his orders and participated in the spoils.

In this context, what happened in Egypt on Friday seems to be an old fashioned military coup. Instead of one overlord, Egypt will now be run by a military junta of probably 5 officers. History suggests such collective leadership does not last very long. Gamal Abdul Nasser, member of such a collective leadership, took absolute power over Egypt. Even the Russian trinity of Brezhnev, Kosygin & Podgorny was slowly transformed into Brezhnev’s rule.

Field Marshal Tantawi is over 80 years old. He is not the future of Egypt. Who is?

Views of the “Tahrir Square” revolution – Friedman vs. Friedman Divergence

Some of the more poetic words about the Tahrir Square protests were written by Tom Friedman in the New York Times. In his words , “…suddenly the Arab world has a truly free space…and the truth is now gushing out of here like a torrent from a broken hydrant”. This is exactly what all of us saw on Television.

This was a revolution made for Television. And then it struck us. It was almost like a Bollywood film, raucous celebration, great ending without any real pain. We have never seen an entrenched regime give up so easily and without any struggle, without any violence. Mahatma Gandhi never had it so easy. Dr. King had to take hits. But, not this Egyptian Revolution.

The victory of Mahatma Gandhi required the effort of an entire nation, from the young to the old, from the poor to the rich, of men and women. The victory of Dr. King required support from all walks of his society. Despite this broad support, their supporters constantly faced threats of violence and actual violence.

But the Tahrir Square revolution consisted of about 250,000 demonstrators among Cairo’s 17 million people and Egypt’s 80 million people. Except for one amateurish attack from a few on horseback , the safety of the revolutionaries was guaranteed by the Egyptian Army. As we said, Gandhi never had it so easy.

Let us be clear. We do not mean to question the passion of the protesters. But we do have doubts about the apparent support of the Egyptian Military for the protests. We had suppressed these doubts until we heard the words of another Friedman, Dr. George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor.

In his TV appearance on Friday with Bill O’Reilly, Dr. Friedman said that the struggle in Egypt began when Mubarak insisted on making his son Gamal Mubarak his successor. This is when his loyal supporters in the Military turned against him. The Senior Generals were loyal to Hosni Mubarak, the man who brought them to where they were. But they would not accept his son and the son’s civilian business cronies. 

Dr. Friedman also opined that the struggle that riveted the world for the past few days was about money, billions and billions of dollars put away over the years. Apparently Mubarak wanted guarantees that his money would be safe and no one could give him that guarantee. So he decided to stay. Then finally, the Generals rebeled. They put Mubarak on ice and saved the regime. So in the words of Dr. Friedman, what happened in Egypt was a classic Military coup.

Had this coup taken place a month or so ago, the entire world would have seen it for what it was. So the Tahrir Square revolution proved extraordinarily convenient for the Egyptian Military Generals. May be this is why the Military guaranteed the safety of the protestors from day one of the protest. Tahrir Square was never going to be Tianamen Square.

When the Generals mounted the coup on Friday, February 11, they did so ostensibly to meet the democratic yearnings of fellow Egyptians, to meet the demands of President Obama, the European Union and the outcry of the world’s TV and print media.

The Bad Guy was sent away and the Good guys won in Egypt. The fact that the new Good Guys were hand in glove with the Bad Guy for 30 years does not matter. The Swiss froze the accounts of Mubarak, but not any accounts they might have of Tantawi, Annan and not even of Suleiman.

So whose views prevail in this Friedman vs. Friedman divergence? We let you decide.

The Unquestioned Winner?

The United States of America. The Obama Administration seems to have won everything, at least in the short term. President Obama avoided the stigma of supporting a brutal dictator who had suppressed his people for 30 years and amassed a large fortune in the process. President Obama supported the cause of freedom, democracy and upheld the promise of his Cairo speech.

And President Obama preserved the regime, the regime that had been one of most loyal allies of the USA for the past 30 years. The new Egypt will be controlled by the Egyptian Military, the entity that is kept afloat by US aid and has proved most loyal to the US strategic interests. This is the same military that supports the peace treaty with Israel and fights Hamas, Al Qaida, Hezbollah.

In addition, President Obama gets to insist that the new regime create a broadly representative civilian body to safeguard the rights of Egyptians.

Finally, the events in Egypt serve as a severe warning to the dictators and ruling dynasties that run other Middle Eastern countries. The Obama Administration has served notice that the individual rulers are not America’s friends, their regimes are. And if the rulers do not bend, events can be created to drive them out of their own countries in the best interests of their people without damaging core US interests.

The United States achieved this success not with its hard power but with its soft power, CNN, Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, New York Times, Washington Post etc. All these media organizations ended up serving the interests of America as all American entities should.

Kudos to President Obama. This is an unqualified short term win for him.

If you doubt that, look at what the Egyptian Military Council announced on Saturday morning – Egypt  will abide by all its international agreements, including the one with Israel and the current government shall continue in power until a new one is formed. If this is not a win for Mr. Obama, what is?

But what about the medium term? It depends on the Acid Test, in our opinion.

The Acid Test

All middle eastern regimes have a fault line. It is also the fault line of American policy in the Middle East. It is named Israel. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is the foundation of US Foreign policy in the Middle East.

It is widely reported that the majority of Egyptians consider Israel as their enemy and the Palestinian cause runs deep in the Egyptian psyche. Read what Dominic Di Natale of Fox news heard in Tahrir Square on Friday “It was a treaty between Mubarak and Israel, not a treaty between the Egyptian People and Israel”.

If the new Egyptian Junta takes its time in delivering reforms or elections, the opposition will probably engage it at its most vulnerable spot. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt has already called for a national
referendum on the peace treaty with Israel. Doesn’t that sound democratic? But the results of such a referendum will end the peace treaty. So the Egyptian Military Junta and the USA both will oppose such a referendum. Hamas has already called for opening of the borders between Egypt and Gaza. Where does Egyptian public opinion lie on this issue?

Amr Moussa, the ex-Minister and a popular figure in Egypt, resigned from the Arab League on Friday, the organization he headed for the past 10 years. Mr. Moussa has said in the past that he hates Israel. What if Mr. Moussa contests the free and fair elections in Egypt as an opponent of Israel and the peace treaty?

Public pronouncements of American and European officials can create problems for Egyptian-Israeli relations instead of helping. Angela Merkel of Germany has demanded that the new Egypt honor the peace treaty with Israel. James Sinclair, the U.S. deputy secretary of state told the Congress that “whatever government emerges in Egypt in the future must honor Egypt’s historic peace treaty with Israel”.

In other words, 80 million free Egyptians in a democratic Egypt must not have the right to choose their own friends and their own enemies. If you were running in an election in Egypt against candidates backed by the ruling Military Junta, would you not make make this the cornerstone of your election agenda?

Tom Friedman wrote on Friday “Humiliation is the single most powerful human emotion, and overcoming it is the second most powerful human emotion. That is such a big part of what is playing out here.”

Anthony Shahid of the New York Times wrote on Friday “Whatever order emerges will almost certainly be less favorable to Israel and the United States, both symbols to many protesters of Egyptian subservience.”

If Israel is a symbol of Egyptian subservience, then is it not reasonable to believe that Hamas, Hezbollah or their ilk will try to provoke Israel with a terror attack in Gaza or the Sinai? If Israel responds with force as it usually does and if the rational response of the Egyptian Army is to do nothing, will the newly freed Egyptian people suffer more humiliation? How will they then react to their Military Junta?

This unfortunately will the Acid Test for the new Egyptian regime and America’s future role in a free, democratic Egypt. 

Will the New Egypt be different from Old Egypt?

Today, the new Egyptian regime is just the old regime with a slightly newer face. But this new regime is weaker than the one it replaced. For one, it needed the Tahrir Square protesters to win its battle against Hosni Mubarak. And needing help from another entity is the most tell-tale sign of structural weakness.

Professor Mohamed Serag of Cairo University said to Tom Friedman, “All Egyptian people believe that their country is a great country with very deep roots in history, but the Mubarak regime broke our dignity in the Arab world and in the whole world”. Does Professor Serag think that replacing Mubarak with a Tantawi-led junta is the way to regain Egyptian honor? We doubt it.

Read what Issa Adel Issa , a young organizer in Tahrir Square, said on Saturday “We’re staying put, We’re not leaving until the regime is gone…We don’t want a military government. We want a democracy with civilians in charge”.

Ahmed Abed Ghafur, a computer engineer, said to the Washington Post “This is a revolution, not a half-revolution. We need an interim government. We need a committee for the new constitution. Once we get that, then we can leave the square.”

This is the key question for next week. Will the protestors leave Tahrir Square in the next day or two? Or will they continue until the Military Junta is replaced by a new civilian government with fresh faces? If so, who will the fresh faces be?

So is the Tahrir Square revolution over OR is Anthony Shahid of the New York Times correct in his declaration “One revolution ended Friday. Another may begin soon.”

When the revolutions end, the task of rebuilding the economy begins. That’s the only thing we can say with certainty.

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