CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — U.S. President Barack Obama was correct when he said we were witnessing history unfolding in Egypt, and correct again on Friday when he said the transition to democracy was not yet complete. But we don’t know how history will unfold — towards democracy or another form of autocratic government?
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, but the army is in charge, as it really always has been since King Farouk was deposed in 1952, and army rule is not democracy.
There are three things that need saying;
1) Events in Egypt are not yet a revolution. The czar may have abdicated, but the “ancien regime” is still in power. It seems unlikely that Mubarak’s chosen successor, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, can satisfy the Cairo street. Concessions that might have placated protestors yesterday are too-little-too-late today. But in the end the army got rid of Mubarak because, with the country in chaos, Mubarak was bad for business. The army will not permit a revolution in Egypt.
2) Egypt’s peace with Israel will remain in force. If there were to be true democracy, and the people’s will truly expressed, the peace treaty with Israel would be abrogated, but that won’t happen. Egypt made peace with Israel for its own reasons, to end the cycle of a war every decade, and get along with its own business. The army was part of that decision in 1977, and the reasons for it still stand. Egypt may be less cooperative with Israel now that Mubarak’s gone, but there will not be another war between Egypt and Israel, nor will the Egyptian army threaten Israel again.
3) The United States may be paying the Egyptian army’s bills, and it may have close contacts with Egyptian officers, but the ability of Washington to influence events is limited. We may be paying the fiddler, but we cannot call the tune.
As in other countries, notably Pakistan, elected, civilian government atrophies under military rule. Except for America’s "bete noire," the Muslim Brotherhood, there are no political parties organized and ready for free and open elections. But the Muslim Brotherhood has mellowed in recent years, and doesn’t represent the extreme radical threat that it once did — at least not yet.
What has changed just in the last few weeks is that Arab peoples in several countries have called tyranny’s bluff, and have stood up and talked back to power. This has made every regime in the Arab world nervous, and it is the reason so many Arab countries, and Israel too, begged Obama to go easy on easing Mubarak out of power. We don’t know how infectious this new germ is, or whether it will prove deadly to other regimes.
But armies call the tune in many Arab countries, and it is unlikely, for example, that the Jordanian army would ease King Abdullah out as the Egyptian army eased out Mubarak. First of all, Abdullah has not lost popularity in Jordan as Mubarak did in Egypt. Secondly, the core of the Jordian army is from the east bank of the Jordan River — i.e. tribesmen and not Palestinian transplants, who now make up more than half of the population. There has always been tension in Jordan between East Bank Arabs and Palestinians in Jordan, and the army will keep their king rather than see any possibility of Palestinian transplant takeover.
When Palestinians threatened Jordan before, when the PLO under Yasser Arafat maintained a state within a state in Jordan, Abdullah’s father, King Hussein at first hesitated. During an army parade, some of the tanks and armored cars carried women’s underwear on their antennas to show their contempt. Hussein acted, and threw the PLO out of Jordan in 1970 in what the PLO called “Black September.” Abdullah may not be as popular with the desert tribes as his father was, but it is unlikely they will abandon him.
And so we enter a great unknown with Mubarak gone, and it is fair to ask how the Obama administration has handled the crisis so far. Caught flat-footed, Obama is cross with his CIA for not warning him in time. But CIA chief Leon Panetta is right when he says you can describe the fault lines, but you can’t predict the earthquake. No one was more surprised in 1979 than Ayatollah Khomeini by the revolution that brought him to power in Iran. It is better for the United States to be slightly behind the curve, and cautious in these situations, than too far out in front. I would give Obama a passing grade on this one.
One of the problems facing the Obama administration is that, so far, the great street protests of the last few weeks remain relatively leaderless. No leaders seem to be in charge of events, nor of what comes next. Will people simply go home now that Mubarak is gone? It is likely there is more in store for Egypt.
The Cairo street is more connected than ever before. Who would have thought that a device invented at Harvard to pick up girls would become a voice for protest throughout the Middle East? But the street has not yet produced a likely replacement for army rule.