Up Front

Mubarak and Egypt: The Stakes Could Not Be Higher

Bruce Riedel

President Hosni Mubarak tried to change the subject in his speech to the Egyptian people on Thursday away from demands for his departure and towards resisting “foreign” demands that Egypt “take orders” from abroad. Mubarak tried to blame Barack Obama for his domestic problems without ever naming him. It is not likely to work. The Egyptian public is not going to be easily distracted, but a difficult situation in Egypt has just gotten worse.

The 82-year-old Mubarak is a proud man who has fought bravely for his country in several wars with Israel and who believes he has run Egypt well for thirty years.  His vice president Omar Suleiman is of the same stock. I know them both. Both fundamentally do not want to change the system and are still hoping somehow they can outlast the opposition. They have avoided risky and precipitous decisions all their political lives, and want to avoid them still.

They are undoubtedly being encouraged to do so by the other autocrats in the Arab world who fear the contagious impact of Mubarak’s downfall. The Saudis are especially keen to keep Mubarak in power. So is his old nemesis Muammar Qadhafi, who fears he could be next.  Ironically, so are the Israelis. Both the Saudis and Israelis fear the Egyptian revolution of 2011 will turn into a replay of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Hamas’ victory in Gaza and the takeover of Lebanon by Hizballah this winter – through the more or less legal political system – has reinforced these fears.

But Egypt today is not Iran yesterday or today. There is no Ayatollah Khomeini or league of extreme Islamic clerics leading this opposition. Its leadership so far has been young, educated and broad-based, with many secular figures. It seeks the rule of law and accountability, not the rule of a Supreme Leader or divinely chosen Imam. Egyptian Sunni Islam is not controlled by a clerical establishment, like Iranian Shia Islam. Egyptians know their country desperately needs more Western tourists – not isolation from the West. 

The opposition does include the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Egyptian Brotherhood eschewed violence years ago, and has already said it will not run a candidate for president if Egypt holds new elections. It is very close to Hamas and demands the lifting of the siege of Gaza, but it also knows Egyptians do not want more wars with Israel. The Brotherhood is the best organized Egyptian party, but it does not have a monopoly on street support. The violence we have seen in Egypt so far has come from Mubarak and Suleiman and their thugs, not the Islamists. 

Trying to hold back history and peaceful change may radicalize the situation. Those who have been bystanders so far to a revolution that they had nothing to do with, like al Qaeda, will try to steal the direction of events if the stalemate goes on indefinitely. Terror either at home in Egypt or abroad is a growing danger. Anger in the streets with Mubarak may get more explosive. More extreme voices in the Brotherhood will gain traction.

The army still has a critical role to play. Its commander, Defense Minister Tantawi, is cut from the same cloth as the president and vice president, but his officer corps must now be asking the key question: “Is Mubarak and his team an asset or a liability to their future?” The captains and majors in the streets also must wonder whether their men will fire on demonstrators or join them, if push comes to shove. 

There is still time for cool heads to prevail in Egypt. The United States can play a role with the army leadership in urging calm and walking away from the brink. The opposition has now spread to the labor movement, which will bring the economy to a standstill so it does not need to turn to violence. Bigger and angrier demonstrations are likely, but they can hopefully remain peaceful. The stakes are huge for Egypt, the region and America, and it is getting more dangerous as the old guard tries to hang on.