Rebel forces have taken over cities in Libya as Gadhafy declares “my people love me.” Whatever the outcome of these battles, I believe Egypt more than Libya will help determine the fate of the Middle East. Thus, I would like to offer a few additional thoughts on Egypt, even though media attention has shifted for now.
We have all seen the story. In eighteen short days 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign as president has come to an end. There is a deserved sense of triumph among Egyptians. But this is just the first chapter of a developing saga. Political stagnation, widespread corruption, economic inequality, abusive security forces, a 30% illiteracy rate, joblessness, and a litany of other legitimate grievances will not be addressed in Tahrir Square. These issues cannot be dealt with through slogans, populist rhetoric, religious salvation, or conspiracy theories. And they will not be resolved overnight, if indeed they are resolved.
A lot must occur to enable Egyptian reform. Democratic safeguards–free press, independent judiciary, protected constitution, independent political parties, protection of minority rights—are not yet present. For example, deep-seated discrimination against minorities such as Copts remains. Without minority protection and the rule of law, Egypt faces the prospect of either mob rule or exploitation of the democratic process by a new set of tyrants.
The army will soon retreat into the political background where it can maintain popularity while protecting its vast business interests. A nascent civil society will have to fill the political void. For now, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized political opposition. This raises a few questions and concerns. Will Egyptians build resilient democratic institutions that enable progress or will religious fundamentalism or populism reign the day? What will the inclusion of Islamist parties in the government mean for women, minorities, and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty? Will elections infuse fresh blood into the political system or will the old guard remain under a new label?
How Egyptians deal with these issues will determine the fate of the Middle East. Egyptian protests have bolstered the resolve of others in the region. A disappointing outcome will serve as a harsh lesson. If democracy becomes synonymous with turbulence, indecision, and shattered hopes, the remaining tyrants will have evidence as to why oppressive stability trumps democracy.
Whatever government emerges, it must have space to craft its own policies. At the same time, the US should unequivocally communicate that anti-Western populism will not be appreciated and stress how both sides benefit from close bilateral relations. Respecting “the will of the people” does not mean acquiescing to developments that are detrimental to our national interest.
Trusted partners like the spy chief Omar Suleiman (a graduate of the US Special Warfare School in Fort Bragg) have been removed from their positions. Cooperation on important international issues such as Iranian nuclear development will diminish. In fact, an emboldened Iran will jostle for input. Similar to what happened in Afghanistan after the Taliban and in Iraq after Saddam Hussein, Iran will aim to exploit the US freedom agenda to gain influence in a formerly hostile state. Already Egypt has let two Iranian war ships into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, the first such voyage since 1979.
While respecting the democratic process the US should not be naive about Egypt’s immediate limitations. We must aim to influence reform in a positive manner before others fill that role to our detriment. We already spend billions subsidizing Egypt’s army and government. By also underwriting emerging civil institutions, something largely avoided thus far, we can increase the possibility that Egypt’s liberal revolution remains liberal.
One important consideration of US foreign policy is the American brokered Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The agreement looks safe for now, if only because $1.3 billion dollars a year of Egypt’s military aid is tied to it. Egypt no less than Israel, wants to avoid war and border confrontations. However, relations with Israel will undoubtedly worsen as strong anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment is calculated into government policy. A 2010 Pew Poll found that 95% of Egyptians held an ‘unfavorable view’ of Jews (compared with only 35% of Israeli Arabs). And in a 2007 Pew survey, an overwhelming 80% of Egyptians said that the needs of the Palestinians could never be accommodated so long as Israel exists. Protesters in Tahrir square were actively chanting “To Jerusalem we’re heading, martyrs in the millions.” In a democracy, this attitude will translate into action. For example, a new government may quit helping contain Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. Egypt’s role as an example of Arab-Israeli peace will cease if Egyptian hostility is reflected in government policy.
The jury is still out on the ultimate success of the Egyptian revolt. How Egyptians define success will matter as much as whether they achieve it.
David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem. Become a Facebook fan of Street Smart Politics. Follow on Twitter.