Feb 2nd 2011

Egypt's Future Rests with the Military

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

By now it has become increasingly clear that the future of Egypt's stability, political reforms and progress rest almost entirely in the hands of its military. Unlike other militaries in Arab states, Egypt's military is one of the most respected institutions that have earned the admiration and respect of the people. It is, to some extent, similar to the Israeli military. Service in the Egyptian Armed Forces is compulsory, and thus composed of young soldiers from all walks of life with a unique affinity and commitment to the welfare and well-being of their nation.

In that sense it is the people's military to which most Egyptians look up to with esteem. Although the military supported the Mubarak government, it remained above the fray and largely untainted with corruption, relative to many other government institutions. When a uniformed military spokesman said on state TV that "the armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people," this strongly suggests that the military not only lived up to the people's expectations, but made the decision not support the beleaguered President Mubarak if it means quelling the demonstrators by force. This dramatic turn of events was further reinforced when the same military spokesman said, addressing the protesters, that the military understood "the legitimacy of your demands" and "affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."

One cannot underestimate the critical importance of this development, not only because of its domestic implications but regional effects, especially in relation to the United States and the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Egypt has been and continues to be central to the region's stability. The Mubarak government has worked assiduously to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians and has spared no efforts to limit Hamas' outreach. The adjunct that without Egypt there will be no new Arab-Israeli war and without Syria there will be no comprehensive peace remains valid to this day. Thus, having made the decision in principle not to use force against unarmed Egyptian demonstrators, the military has taken sides and has sent a clear message to President Mubarak that he in fact has two options, albeit neither is very attractive:

The first option is to relinquish power peacefully by establishing a new transitional government completely divorced from current high officials. Under such a scenario President Mubarak should announce to his nation that he will step down at a specified date no later than September 2011 when new national elections are scheduled to be held. The September date is symbolic for his departure only, although it would be far more prudent to hold the general election after giving the secular opposition parties the opportunity to be better organized to prepare for a national campaign. The President should select respected bureaucrats which may include Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), around whom most opposition leaders, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood may coalesce. The new transitional government will then focus for the next 18 to 24 months on preparing the nation for elections, while making every effort to revamp the economy, create jobs, address corruption and undertake political reforms to ensure that the next election will be free and fair. This option will allow Mubarak to leave his office gracefully; something that the Obama administration may well endorse, especially because this will allow for a peaceful transition while offering a much better chance for the secular parties to gain ground compared to the Muslim Brotherhood, which would preserve the peace treaty with Israel which is the cornerstone of Middle East stability.

The second option is for Mubarak to resist departing the political scene, in which case the uprising will most likely be further intensified. This scenario bears several unpredictable outcomes: it could lead to bloodshed, especially should the internal security forces and police decide to use force against unarmed Egyptians. Extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood may feel more emboldened and try to assert their power, which could end up with major clashes with the military. The prolongation of the unrest will create massive shortages of food, medicine, gasoline and basic necessities, promoting looting, theft and chaos. At the end of the day, if this scenario is to unfold, Mubarak will have to relinquish power and leave his office disgracefully. Many Egyptian scholars and current and former officials with whom I spoke, strongly suggest that the second scenario is not likely to take place because they do not believe that Mubarak would allow himself to choose this route, when in fact he can still leave with some dignity. Others argue that although the Egyptian public is sick and tired of Mubarak's rule, they would like to see their President leave his office with some grace, if for no other reason but to distinguish Egypt from other countries, like Tunisia, where the deposed leader escaped under night cover.

The stakes for the current reshuffled government remain extremely high. The appointment of General Omar Suleiman, the Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, as Egyptian Vice President with mandate to negotiate with the opposition can take different turns, as General Suleiman himself has a vested interest in preserving the current structure in the hope of inheriting the Presidency. Suleiman's best bet, however, is to work toward the establishment of a transitional government while presenting himself as an honest broker. Knowing him as I do, he certainly is capable of that. The temptation and his strong desire to emerge as the nation's new leader, however, may prevent him from seeing the inevitable. In one way or another the Mubarak regime is finished, the question for General Suleiman will be: would he want to leave like his boss (likely in disgrace under this scenario) or indeed emerge as healer of the nation and the architect who ushered in a new era in Egypt's history?

Once again, since the 1952 revolution that ended the Egyptian monarchy and brought the military to power, Egypt-the cradle of civilization-is facing an historic crossroad. The people, with the support of their military, must now chose the kind of future they seek for Egypt as a country and for its people. They must decide how to utilize what emerges from the ashes of the people's revolution to restore Egypt's leadership as the bulwark of regional stability and peace, and assume the task of promoting freedom, economic progress and growth at home. It is a formidable task, but the Egyptian military, which has shown tremendous capacity for discipline, commitment and love of country, can and may well rise to the occasion.

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