Around the Halls: Egypt One Year after Mubarak

One year ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down following weeks of intense protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Daniel Byman, Bruce Riedel, Shadi Hamid, Omar Ashour and Suzanne Maloney examine the ongoing challenges for Egypt as the country works to chart a path to a stable democracy.

Egypt a Year after Mubarak’s Fall: Half Empty or Half Full?
Daniel Byman, Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

Optimists and pessimists can both feel vindicated by looking at the Egyptian revolution after one year. The good news is that, so far at least, the Islamist triumph in the Egyptian elections has not led to radicalism and, if anything, shows the profound pragmatism of many Egyptian Islamist leaders. Policymakers feared that a Muslim Brotherhood victory in the polls might lead to the emergence of a radical, anti-Western government in Cairo. Not only did the Brotherhood gain almost half the seats in Egypt’s parliament, the more radical salafis gained almost a quarter. So politics in Egypt does not involve a fight between secularists and Islamists as anticipated, but rather between different strands within political Islam.

Fortunately, the Brotherhood has sought to reassure international audiences and has not embraced an anti-Western agenda. Nightmare scenarios such as the cancellation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty or the forcible imposition of Islamic law have not come to pass nor do they seem in the making. Even the more radical Egyptian salafis have moderated in response to their success at the polls, though their ultimate trajectory remains a question mark. So the hope that Islamists in power would prove responsible and cautious is, so far, justified.

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Egypt’s Real Surprise 
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

When Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power a year ago many feared that he would be replaced by a radical regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood that would move Egypt towards an Iranian style theocracy and break the peace treaty with Israel. A year later the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest Islamic party, has indeed gained the largest number of seats in the new parliament (over 40%) and is likely to dominate the next government but the Brotherhood has proven to be both cautious and restrained. It has promised to respect women and minority Coptic Christian rights, encourage Western tourism (critical to the economy), keep the treaty with Israel and it has worked with the Egyptian army to try to maintain law and order. Indeed some critics of the Brotherhood now claim it has in effect agreed to share power with the army to keep the revolution contained.

If the Brotherhood has proven to be more pragmatic than some feared and others predicted, the real surprise in Egypt in the last year has been the electoral success of the Brotherhood’s rivals in the Islamist movement. The salafist movement lead by the Nour Party got over twenty percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, a stunning success for a movement almost unknown a year ago. Salafis promote a very fundamental vision of Islam much like that practiced in Saudi Arabia. The salafis and the Brotherhood are old enemies; the salafis have long accused the Brotherhood of being too soft and moderate, and of being too willing to compromise on critical social issues like segregating the sexes and tolerating the sale of alcohol. The salafis also take a more radical line on foreign policy, one leader has even said that Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian leader of al Qaeda, should be welcomed to come home as a hero. Others have stressed, however, that they too will respect the treaty with Israel even though they don’t like it. 

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U.S.-Egypt Relations after Mubarak
Shadi Hamid, Director of Research,Brookings Doha Center, and Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

A year after Mubarak’s fall, US-Egypt relations are at an all-time low. Not, as many suspected, because of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but because America’s supposed friends in the Egyptian military—recipient of $1.3 billion dollars in annual aid—have whipped up anti-American sentiment at a feverish pace. It may have started as a political ploy, a way to build support on the street and highlight the army’s nationalist credentials. But now, it appears, they’ve lost control. This month, the Egyptian government announced that 19 Americans – including the son of a top U.S. official—would be put on trial, facing up to five years in prison. Their crime, apparently, is working for American NGOs—the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute-that have offered support, funding, and election monitoring for Egypt’s uneven transition.

This episode, however worrying on its own, is reflective of something bigger and more troubling—the slow descent from last February’s euphoria into a nightmarish fog of paranoia, distrust, and rampant conspiracy-theorizing. Who is with the revolution, and who isn’t? The ruling military council and its subservient state media see “foreign hands” everywhere. And it’s not just the government; Nearly everyone else is playing the same dangerous game.

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Egypt’s Revolution: A Year after Mubarak
Omar Ashour, Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center

“The time of Mubarak wasn’t bad. At least there were tourists and I can get by” tells me a taxi driver. “But how about the police? Did they harass you under Mubarak?” I asked. “Oh, all the time…God bless the revolution!” The conversation summarizes the attitudes of millions of opinionated, but politically inactive Egyptians, the so-called “party of couch” (Hizb al-Kanaba). Many of whom bitterly complain about the current political and economic conditions, one year after removal of Hosni Mubarak. But when you remind them of his era, they never miss it.

Security crisis, bad economic conditions, and a state-owned media campaign blaming the revolutionaries, their marches and sit-ins for such problems, have seemed to undermine the popularity of the revolution. But the high turnout on the revolution’s anniversary showed otherwise. Hundreds of thousands marched to Tahrir and other squares across Egypt. Marching from the upper-middle class area of Mohandiseen, I saw tens of thousands chanting “down with military rule” and “revolution continues” all the way to Tahrir square, a two-hour walk. When they arrived there was no space for them to enter. The square was full.

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Egypt after Year One
Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

A year after mass street protests culminated in the astonishing ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the story of Egypt has soured. The world watched in awe last February as Egyptians came together to seize control of their political destiny from a sclerotic military ruler that had eroded the country’s stature and squandered the opportunities that its disproportionately young population so desperately craved. Today, jubilation has been replaced by trepidation both in Egypt and around the world, as violence flares on the streets of Cairo and a military leadership reluctant to give up the reins of power has targeted pro-democracy activists and the international community that seeks to help them.
Nowhere does the saga of Egypt’s first post-revolutionary year resonate more than in Iran. Iranians are all too familiar with the turbulence besetting Egypt today: they have endured their own encounter with the high hopes and dashed expectations of a popular revolution gone awry. In particular, Iran’s own experience offers a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in the first post-revolutionary year.

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