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February 01, 2011

Cairo in Chaos: What’s Next?
Posted by Joel Rubin

As Hosni Mubarak sends mixed signals about his next steps - from an undisclosed location -, what should Americans expect next?  Our best Arab ally for the past 30 years has consistently shown himself to be a cagey autocrat, one not to be counted out prematurely, but this may even be too big for him and he may be gone soon.  Here are some scenarios that could play out as a result of this week’s chaos – and that will have a major impact on American interests in the Middle East.

Gamal, the cronies, and fake democracy are done

It wasn’t by accident that the mob first torched the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (NDP).  The NDP has served as the vehicle for the rise of the elder Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to power.  He has no following amongst ordinary Egyptians and the NDP was his gift power base, where he ran its policy and attempted to build a reputation independent of his father.  The military didn’t want him and now he’s done.  And so are his crony friends, the elite international business class, who have done very well, but who haven’t delivered on lifting nearly half the population of out two-dollar a day poverty.  If they haven’t fled already for fear of their lives, they’re likely on their way.  And as far as another election in this country where the winner garners more than 98% of the vote, well, those days are over.

Chaos begets repression elsewhere in the region

First Tunis, now Cairo.  The uprising in two important Arab capitals has put regional autocrats on notice, and they are likely to respond with more proactive repression, not less.  Don’t be surprised to see Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia clamp down, lest they become the next one to fall.  These regimes may in fact look to the Iranian model – where a harsh clampdown snuffed out the Green Movement –as their ideal scenario.  Of course, this means that more U.S. client states may be beating up their own people, causing our reputation even more harm than the “Made in the U.S.A.” gas canisters in Cairo have.

Forget Israel’s support for Middle East peace

The Israeli nightmare scenario is now underway.  For all their remarks about living in a tough neighborhood, they love the Arab autocrat they know, much more than the chaos they don’t know.  Israelis have been waiting in fear for the day that the Egyptian autocrats would fall, frightened by what may lay beneath the surface.  If they didn’t think this way, then they wouldn’t have whisked their diplomats out of Cairo by chopper.  So don’t expect Israelis, who pride themselves on independence and self-reliance when it comes for their defense, to take any more risks anytime soon on a peace deal with another Arab autocrat.  The peace with Egypt will survive, but Israelis will now be more vexed than ever on whether they can make peace in the future with an unreliable autocrat.  Arab democracy may be a prerequisite for future peace deals.

The Army will demand more goodies

It’s clear that the Egyptian police were ineffective at putting down the rebellion, and that the Army has been called in to clean up the mess.  But the Army is the leading institution in the country and does not want to sully its reputation by putting down its own people.  This is good news for the U.S., as the Army is our closest ally in Egypt after Mubarak, and our officials know them well.  On the downside, it’s unclear how where the Army’s real loyalties lie, beyond its self-preservation, as it operates independently from both the Egyptian government and economy, and could extract an even greater price from the U.S. to keep the peace than we currently realize. 

Suleiman on the rise – beware Islamists!

Mubarak’s major concession so far has been to elevate his Intelligence Chief to being his Vice-President – the first person to hold this post since Mubarak did under Sadat.  Suleiman is a known quantity in the U.S. and with Israel, with a reputation for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and for attempting to bring Hamas and the Palestinian Authority together.  Mubarak’s appointment of Suleiman – the ultimate loyalist and strongman – reveals just how panicked Mubarak is and may signal how he intends to move forward – by consolidating his loyalists while potentially cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood.   

Last, but not least: Congress searches for relevance

Congress has the power of the purse and the Tea Party-led Republican caucus in the House wants to kill foreign aid.  Perhaps they’ll get a chance to save $1.5 billion of that aid by axing money for Egypt.  Of course, it’s hard to imagine a better way to eliminate the rapidly dissipating American influence in Egypt than to cut off its military, the only respected institution in that country – and one that we know well – and likely the one that will be central to it for years to come.  Fortunately, wise heads on Capitol Hill are showing bipartisan support for the administration’s handling of event.  That may change when House Members come back to town next week.

Joel Rubin is Deputy Director of the National Security Network and served in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau, including on the Egypt desk, from 2003 – 2005.

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Comments

These all are great to know about it. The peace with Egypt will survive, but Israelis will now be more vexed than ever on whether they can make peace in the future with an unreliable autocrat.

I found your post very interesting. In fact after reading, I had to go show it to my friend and he enjoyed it as well!

The US dilemma about what to do in Egypt has its interesting sides.

* The US has fomented successful removals of various governments, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, but seems impotent in dealing with an insurgency in its ally Egypt because at its heart the insurgency is justified.

* The US counter-insurgency doctrine that has been much in favor recently has no application in a real insurgency taking place in an ally, but only in US offensive actions (Iraq and Afghanistan).

* So the US is lost in, not how to defeat an insurgency, but rather to what degree aid should be given to the insurgency.

* The US inaction regarding the Egypt insurgency is a direct result of the need for US foreign policy to do what's best for Israel and not to do what suits US interests.

* Obama got it wrong. The real conflict is not between the US and Muslims, but between Muslim people and their US-supported repressive governments. Obama in Cairo, 2009: "We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. . .I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."

* The traditional US support of repressive governments like Egypt, as opposed to its fictitious support of human rights, is the basis of anti-US feeling in the Muslim world and, besides the Egypt government, is a target of the Egypt insurgency.

* So Obama's "new beginning" has been re-defined by brave Egyptians on Cairo's streets and now the US has to deal with that. It seems powerless to do so because it fails to understand the new realities.

* Americans suffer much the same disconnect domestically between themselves and their government, but that's another story.

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* The US counter-insurgency doctrine that has been much in favor recently has no application in a real insurgency taking place in an ally, but only in US offensive actions (Iraq and

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