The Political Earthquake in Egypt
At this year’s annual gathering of security officials and experts at the Munich Security Conference, there were many of the familiar faces in attendance, but this time they were dealing with a lot more than the familiar agenda.
The traditional concern about the parameters and costs of defense policies, the future of NATO, and nuclear weapons proliferation was accompanied this year by an issue of immediate and urgent importance: The dramatic scenes of demonstrations in the streets of Cairo and the political earthquake throughout the region around them.
When it came to making assessments of Egypt’s future, speculation was all that could be offered by the best and the brightest gathered in Munich. The challenges of seeking ways to help those protesters in their pursuit of a new political platform beyond the thirty-year autocratic rule of President Mubarak while arguing for the need for a stable and peaceful transition was a juggling act worthy of the talents of the artists seen at Cirque du Soleil.
The American jugglers seemed to fumble their act over the analysis of Frank Wisner, a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, who had been asked by the Obama administration to talk to Mubarak about the need to step down in light of the uprising. Wisner reported to the Security Conference audience that, although Mubarak was willing to refrain from running for the presidency in the upcoming elections in September, he felt Mubarak should remain in office until new elections are able to be scheduled in order to help the transformation process. The hypersensitivity in Washington about making pronouncements about what would be best for Egypt’s next steps kicked in immediately as the White House declared Wisner’s statements to be “his own private opinions.” Meanwhile, the opinions of the White House remains a eclectic mix of positions on the role of the Egyptian army, worries about the potential of Islamic radicalism, concerns about flare-ups in the wider regions, and the security of Israel.
The fumbling for the best mix of messages was equally apparent on the European side: EU foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton’s efforts to forge a European Union position was like walking a tightrope, trying to emphasize the need for a peaceful and orderly transition in Cairo without calling for the immediate ouster of President Mubarak but still trying to identify with the protesters in Tahrir Square.
The Difficult Transition to Democracy
Part of that puzzle was due to the fact that the protests against Mubarak did not generate a set of organized opposition groups able to immediately confront the task of transforming a decades-old system of an authoritarian government into a new system of democratic rule in a short period of time. Another part was the ambiguous response of the Cairo regime which was clearly trying to wait out the protesters and regain its footing; in wake of today’s events, clearly this was unsuccessful.
Even though leaders in Europe and the United States have made loud pronouncements that they support the goals of the demonstrators, demanded that there be no violence directed at them by the regime, and encouraged Mubarak and his new circle to meet with them, the fact that they have also spent the last thirty years supporting the Cairo cabal undercut their credibility in the Egyptian streets. Yet the mantra coming out of Europe and Washington is the desire to both assist and insist: Assist the transformation and insist that it turn in the direction of democracy. Just how to do that without over- or under-reaching is the main question.
Lessons From the GDR
In Munich, Chancellor Merkel was asked what lessons she might draw from the peaceful revolution which brought down the German Democratic Republic over two decades ago. Merkel was quick to point out that the situations in Europe in 1989 do not resemble those of 2011 in Egypt. But she did say that the scenes of the demonstrators in Cairo brought back memories of those demonstrations in the streets of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in the fall of that historical year in Germany. She did remind everyone that as the leaders of the revolution challenged the dictatorship which had controlled East Germans for forty years, they insisted that those who had been part of that regime had to vacate their offices. They then assembled themselves to plot the next steps of the German Democratic Republic which quickly led to German unification less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell. Merkel reminded us that it was the desire of the East Germans to first determine that course themselves. And she added that there was a good deal of patience required in the transformation, as quickly as it actually unfolded. But, with an eye on Tahrir Square, she also added, “who are we then if we don’t stand on side of these people?” That is that same claim which thousands of Egyptians in the Square – along with their neighbors in Tunisia, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Middle East – are making now.
Throughout the last several weeks, leaders in Europe and the United States have been urging restraint on both sides of the confrontation. Yet as Egyptians sense that their moment to change the course of their history was upon them, the need to capture that moment was growing. Just as Germans, West and East, sensed that the end of the GDR was at end in 1990, there was an urgency to seize that opportunity. In Egypt, negotiating with the regime that has kept that opportunity from them for so long is similarly not seen as an alternative.
An Inability to Influence?
The changing dynamics in Egypt are occurring at a time when we mark the twentieth anniversary of the first Gulf War in 1990. At that time, there was a large coalition forged under the leadership of George Herbert Walker Bush – a coalition which made short work of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The basis of that coalition was the rejection of both the aggression of Saddam Hussein and the complicated mixture of self-interests which underlined the need for a joint response. One dimension of self interest was maintaining stability in a volatile region of the world. During the last two decades, we have seen evidence that efforts at securing stability has not always resulted in sustainable security. 9/11 was a violent reminder to Americans of that, but we have also seen how the price for securing stability was often at the cost of building a viable democratic system of government, be it in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Tunisia, to name just a few examples. And the continuing struggle to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is caught up in this same vortex.
It was clear in Munich that neither Europe nor the United States can or will significantly influence the outcome in Egypt, regardless of how it evolves. The United States has influence with the Egyptian army and its generals, having invested so much support in them during the past decades. President Obama can perhaps argue that they have the opportunity to help maintain the space needed for the transformation that begins today. Yet finding the balance between assisting that process while insisting on the importance of pursuing peaceful transitions is the challenge both sides of the Atlantic face now.
Egypt After Mubarak
Egypt is now on a new platform of empowered citizens who still face the challenge of resolving the conflict between the past and the future.
Given Mubarak’s decision today to resign after eighteen days of protest, Egypt now has a chance to renew itself. The next steps are going to be determined by the tenacity of the Egyptian protesters, the decision of the army to shape the parameters of protests, and the new regime’s responses to them. Mubarak finally realized that he could not stall the forces of change that have been unleashed.
The end game in Cairo remains open. The United States and Europe will have to grasp the historical breakthrough that happened today and what they can do to help Egypt tomorrow. What happens in Egypt will have consequences for all of us. But today, the there is a moment to mark the fact that the mantra of 1989 – “We are the people” – was repeated in Arabic successfully.
This essay appeared in the February 11, 2011, AICGS Advisor.