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Egypt - Who Wins?

Commentary, 7 February 2011
Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
The Egyptian regime seems to be attempting to divide its opposition in order ensure that Vice-President Omar Suleiman should succeed in confirming his position as the future President of Egypt.

The Egyptian regime seems to be attempting to divide its opposition in order ensure that Vice-President Omar Suleiman should succeed in confirming his position as the future President of Egypt

By George Joffé for RUSI.org  

 Tahrir Square

In recent days it has become clear that the Egyptian army is increasingly the arbiter of Egypt's future, a development that has been reflected in three separate incidents. First, the army distanced itself from the personal leadership of President Mubarak by declaring that it would never fire on the demonstrators.

At the same time, the new premier, Ahmed Shafiq, apologised for the violence that had spilled onto the streets. Then the choice of Omar Suleiman, the head of military intelligence, as vice-president indicated that any hopes there might have been of Hosni Mubarak's son succeeding him at the presidential elections in September had now disappeared. Finally, the president was persuaded to announce his own departure from power at the end of his presidential term.

The transition begins?

Furthermore, Vice-President Omar Suleiman's broadcast on the evening of 3 February - the eleventh day of demonstrations in Cairo - seemed to mark the beginning of the endgame in Egypt's crisis. He told Egyptians that there seemed to have been a plot to destabilise the Egyptian state, something which would not be tolerated, and went on to say that a period of at least seventy days would be needed to carry through judicial and constitutional reforms to accommodate the demonstrators' demands for democratisation. He also offered to negotiate with the demonstrators and the opposition political parties and appealed for an end to the demonstrations because now 'all their demands had been met'. In effect, therefore, the vice-president endorsed President Mubarak's determination to remain in power until the end of his presidential term, now that he had renounced the idea that his son, Gamal, should succeed him, as he explained to CNN the same evening.  

Yet, at the same time, the sudden spate of pro-President Mubarak demonstrations that erupted into spectacular violence highlighted the determination of the regime to demonstrate what lawlessness will mean, if it were to abandon power to an ill-prepared and fragmented opposition.

It also underlined the fact that the Egyptian president still retains significant popular support, even if many so-called supporters have turned out to come, incognito, from the security forces. Indeed, there are suspicions that the former interior minister, Habib El-Adli, sacrificed in the recent cabinet reshuffle, may be behind them, to remind his former colleagues of the power he still wields. The following Friday, dubbed by demonstrators the 'Day of Departure', the Egyptian army took care to keep the tens of thousand of pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators who poured onto the streets in Cairo and Alexandria after Friday prayers well apart.

The problem now is to sell the army's new package of measures to the demonstrators who have refused to engage with the new regime until the president has definitively departed from the political scene. It is here that the pro-Mubarak demonstrations play the role of creating chaos to drive popular demands for stability and restored order, for the army still will not intervene in the growing clashes on the street beyond keeping demonstrators apart. There are fears, however, that the army will eventually clear public squares of demonstrators if the demonstrations do not die down soon.

Dealing with the opposition

Yet there is no coherent leadership to the demonstrations that could formulate what the demonstrators really want, now that the president is to go, beyond the demand that this should happen far more quickly than present plans allow.

Only now are influential figures such as Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister and current secretary-general of the Arab League, suggesting that they might play a mediating role. But he, like Mohammed El-Baradei, has no formal political organisation behind him and would need to create one if he were to become a significant player.

The army leadership, however, is not standing still. In effect, the mantle of power has already passed from Hosni Mubarak to Omar Suleiman, behind whom stands the army, the guarantor of the regime, even with its new trappings of democratic engagement.

The tone of the vice-president's broadcast indicated that, whilst he was prepared to make concessions to the demonstrators' demands, the regime itself had no intention of stepping aside. In that connection, the United States seems to have been abruptly snubbed when the Obama administration tried to hurry the president out of office. Yet if the regime intends to continue, how can the popular democratic agenda be accommodated, and how free and fair will the presidential elections in September really be?

That largely depends on how effectively the demands of the demonstrations can be translated into coherent political platforms, articulated by parties with genuine popular support. Until now, most political parties reflect the aspirations of educated elites and the vast mass of Egyptians have had little voice outside the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood will become a dominant element of any new political scene, but it will take care not to be too prominent, both because of its promised commitment to political pluralism and because it knows that foreign and domestic observers fear that it wishes to seize power. But it must compete with many other currents of opinion and, despite its mass support, does not enjoy majority support throughout the country. It is now considering talking to the new regime, even if Mohammed El-Baradei, the putative leader of the demonstrators despite lacking any formal political backing, will not.

In short, the regime seems to be attempting to divide its opposition in order to ensure that Omar Suleiman should succeed in confirming his position as the future president of Egypt. Insofar as it has a coherent agenda and its popular opposition does not, it has an innate advantage in establishing its objectives when the presidential elections take place in September.

In effect, then, the regime, reborn in the guise of Omar Suleiman and his military backing, is pressing the inchoate opposition to redefine itself in order to meet constitutional prescription to gain power or otherwise to accept a liberalisation defined by a regime that remains in power even though its figurehead has been removed. The drama in the future, therefore, is whether the opposition can successfully rise to this challenge. To that we still have no answer, but the army increasingly looks to be in charge.

International implications

Such an outcome would certainly be viewed with relief by Egypt's major allies. For Israel, it would mean that the peace treaty with Egypt was secure and the security of its southern flank would be assured, for the army leadership knows how important the peace treaty is to ensuring American support and the continued inflow of the $1.5 billion-worth of military aid.  

For the United States, Egypt's role as a leading moderate state within the Middle East would continue at the price of cosmetic domestic policy changes embracing political liberalisation - changes which Washington could only welcome. Europe, too, would be relieved that political Islam had been kept at bay, for its leaders still believe, quite erroneously, that political Islam in any form is the precursor of violent Islamic extremism. There will, however, be a price to be paid for continuity: Egypt will no longer be able to isolate Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, even if the army continues to inhibit arms for Hamas. But that, in turn, may reveal the essential incoherence in Western strategy towards the Palestinians, so that Egypt unintentionally becomes the vehicle by which a redundant policy is finally abandoned.

Dr George Joffé is a RUSI Professorial Fellow and Director of RUSI Qatar.

Main Image: Flickr - Mashahed

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