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.