Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reeling from demonstrations calling for dramatic reform in the way his country is governed. Egyptians have been buoyed by the success of the Tunisian street, which induced president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to depart his country post-haste. Dissidents were empowered by social media, making it possible, at least initially, to communicate and plan.
Will the Tunisian experience be replicated in Egypt? Maybe, but the two situations are different.
Tunisia is mostly urban, well-educated and less susceptible to Islamic radicalism. Egypt is corrupt, but the Mubarak family doesn’t share the odour of decay that the Ben Alis enjoyed. Ordinary Egyptians have a reputation as fatalists, accepting disagreeable realities, providing their basic food and shelter requirements are met. The last riots in Egypt occurred in 1977, when Anwar Sadat reduced basic food subsidies, which were then quickly reinstated to ensure quiescence.
Little reported, but of great significance, is the fact that Tunisia’s military defied orders to fire on the crowds. Had they not, the results would have been bloody and the outcome different. The Shah of Iran lost power in 1979 when the Iranian army went over to the opposition.
The Shah was succeeded by a coalition of opposition groups ranging from Marxist to Islamist, with the latter emerging victorious in the subsequent power struggle. The Islamist leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini, isolated and repressed the secular forces that had been his partners in revolution.
The Egyptian dissidents are led by a loose alliance of secular movements. They have been inspired by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since leaving the IAEA, Mr. ElBaradei has promoted himself as a democratic alternative to Mr. Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular and best organized opposition group in Egypt, has so far taken a back seat, declining to encourage its followers to take to the streets. The reason may be that the Brotherhood is loath to risk losing its strong institutional base in any crackdown, should the government emerge intact.
Should it not, a situation similar to the 1979 Iranian revolution could develop. A broad coalition could assume power, only to be overtaken in the subsequent infighting by the Brotherhood.
The Mubarak apparatus may have been content to let the Brotherhood prosper through tacit understandings that neither would directly challenge the other. But it’s inconceivable that Islamists would fail to take advantage of the power vacuum should the existing autocracy fall.
This must worry the United States, Israel and like-minded countries, given their interest in a reliable, predictable Egypt at the centre of the Arab world. Democratization is a noble goal until it threatens basic strategic interests. Given the absence of viable institutions, save the security services, and an underdeveloped civil society, save the Brotherhood, prospects for democratization seem remote.
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif says the government is committed to “freedom of expression by legal means.” But if the regime reasserts itself, what will happen?
Most likely, some initial loosening of control followed by the ruling party’s nomination of Gamal Mubarak, the President’s seemingly progressive son, as the “new face” to succeed his father in elections scheduled for September. Gamal will promise more, but once his power is consolidated, the “same old, same old” will resurface, as liberalization becomes a chimera and well-trod practices reassert themselves.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin (Sr.) Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.