Daniel W. Drezner

Five questions about Egypt

Five questions about Egypt

The Days of Rage seem to be persisting in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak is gunning for 2011’s Marie Antoinette Award for Most Clueless Political Response By a Leader, and Egyptian protestors have completely and repeatedly ignored the 4 PM curfew announced on Friday.  The police have withdrawn, the armed forces are out but not exactly stopping the protestors, and anyone vaguely related to Hosni Mubarak appears to have decided this was a swell time to shop at Harrod’s.  The official U.S. take on the situation is to tap-dance as fast as humanly possible not say all that much. 

So…. what now?  What’s going to happen?   Like I said last week — and like Paul Krugman — I don’t know.  But having spent the morning watching the Sunday talk shows and the afternoon feverishly updating my Twitter feed, let me take this opportunity to ask as many provocative questions as I can: 

1)  Why is Mubarak toast?  Everyone assumes that the Egyptian leader is a dead man walking, and given his speech on Friday, I can understand that sentiment.  There are, however, remaining options for Mubarak to pursue, ranging from a full-blown 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown to a slow-motion 2009 Tehran-style crackdown. 

Obviously, these aren’t remotely good options for anyone involved.  The first rule in political science, however, is that leaders want to stay in power, and Mubarak has given no indication that he wants to leave.  He could be packing up as I type this — but 80-year old strongmen don’t tend to faint at the first spot of trouble. 

The Days of Rage have clearly altered the future of Egypt — Gamel Mubarak is not going to succeed his father.  How much additional change will take place is unclear. 

2)  Could the army crack down if it wanted to?  Contradicting my first question, the one thing I wonder is whether the Egyptian state has the capacity to crack down any more.  Egypt’s internal security forces have failed miserably.  This leaves the army, an institution that has, to date, commanded respect across all walks of life in Egypt and refrained from direct internal coercion activities . 

The fact that jets buzzed Tahrir Dquare suggests two things.  First, the military is trying to signal to protestors to, you know, go home.  Second, the military might not have the available tools to make this point more effectively, and might not be able to efficiently dispatch protestors if so desired.  If this cable is accurate, the Egyptian military has long-focused on developing its conventional warfare capabilities, which is great for an armored attack in the desert and lousy for subduing a restive civilian population. 

I’m sure the military could restore order if necessary, but it would be a hugely inefficient enterprise.  The hit to their reputation would be massive. 

3)  Has U.S. influence over the situation increased and not decreased?  Again, lots of talk today about how U.S. can’t really shape the outcome.  OK, except that I don’t think the following statements add up:

a)  The Egyptian armed forces are now the central pillar propping up the Egyptian state;

b)  The Egyptian and American defense establishments have strong ties;

c)  U.S. aide to Egypt is roughly $3 billion a year;

d)  U.S. influence over the situation has waned.

As the Obama administration’s rhetoric shifts — going from calling on Mubarak to take action to talk about "transition" — I wonder whether the U.S. is simply following the situation on the ground, or whether the situation on the ground has allowed the administration to start exerting more leverage. 

4)  After Egypt, which country in the region is the most nervous?  This ain’t Tunisia, it’s the heart of the Arab Middle East.  Regime chage in Egypt will send shockwaves across Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Syria. 

That said, I suspect the most nervous country in the region will be Israel.  When I was there this summer listening to their top security experts, Egypt was barely mentioned.  The cornerstone of Israel’s security was the notion that Egypt was a partner and not a threat.  A region in which Iran, Turkey and Egypt all adopt hostile attitudes towards the State of Israel is, let’s say, not an ideal situation.  If both Turkey and Egypt look like democracies a year from now, that makes things even worse. 

5)  Is the Muslim Brotherhood really all that and a bag of chips?  The MB wasn’t behind the latest protests, and it’s not entirely clear how much support they actually command in Egypt. This hasn’t stopped speculation about what an MB-led Egypt would look like.  While everyone is evoking what happened in Iran in 1979, I keep thinking that the Egyptian military is a lot more robust now than the Iranian military was back then.  Stratfor speculates otherwise, but they don’t have much data to back up their claim.  I find it interesting that the MB threat has not deterred neoconservatives from supporting, at a minimum, regime change in Egypt. 

[So do you have any answers?–ed.  The U.S. should be pursuing a broad-spectrum policy of engaging any and every actor in Egypt right now, but the key is the military.  All available pressure — including an aid cutoff — should be put on that institution to not intervene and not attack civilians.  If that happens, I think that all the other dominoes fall.]