FT: Three scenarios for Arab world’s trendsetter

FT: Three scenarios for Arab world’s trendsetter

By Roula Khalaf in London

Published: February 1 2011 18:37 | Last updated: February 1 2011 23:21

From the palaces of Middle Eastern rulers to the corridors of the White House, diplomats have been frantically trying to make sense of the popular uprising in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and a strategic American partner in the region.

For policymakers, the outcome of the Egyptian transition could have dramatic ramifications all over the oil-rich region.

Worryingly for Arab, Israeli and American leaders, Egypt has traditionally been a trendsetter for the Arab world. If Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, is forced out of office, whether now or later this year, other western allies could follow, radically reshaping the region’s political map.

Egypt is also one of two Arab countries (the second being Jordan) to have a peace treaty with Israel, and Mr Mubarak, perhaps ironically, is finding support among Israeli counterparts.

For the the people who flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, the interests of western powers and neighbours are irrelevant. Even the question of what or who might replace Mr Mubarak if they had their way appears to be secondary.

Given the dramatic momentum of the protests and the insertion of the army into the crisis, analysts are already looking beyond Mr Mubarak. Reports emerged on Tuesday night he would announce that he will not run again in the September presidential election.

But even then, the outcome of Egypt’s transition, which appears to have already started, is uncertain.

Here are some possible scenarios:

The slow burn

Mr Mubarak has appeared aloof, as if failing to grasp the rage on the streets and that the one thing all the protesters, whether old or young, poor or rich, agree on is that he should step down. Some Egyptians will be relieved by the prospect of an end to the turmoil, but many of the protesters will find the move an insufficient concession.

Last weekend Mr Mubarak named a vice-president for the first time in his 30-year rule, a move that analysts said was likely to have been pushed on him by the military and signalled that neither he nor his son and presumed heir Gamal would be the regime’s candidates in the presidential elections.

By Tuesday, however, the option of staying on, even for a short period, looked increasingly untenable, as the tidal wave of protests rose and opposition groups dismissed both Mr Mubarak’s appointment of a fresh cabinet and the mandate for dialogue with political parties from Omar Suleiman, his newly appointed vice-president. Mr Mubarak, they insisted, has lost legitimacy and cannot manage a transition.

Diplomats in the region fear that if Mr Mubarak insists on remaining in power until the autumn, police forces loyal to him could once again confront demonstrators, and try to sow chaos – an option that appeared to have been attempted during the weekend, when police forces melted away while mobs roamed the streets terrorising people.

The twilight zone

Egypt’s army, which the population and the opposition now consider the only legitimate institution, presumably wants a dignified exit for Mr Mubarak.

He could, of course, decide to step down voluntarily before September. Or his exit could be announced as being for medical reasons, given his age and poor health. But what happens next?

If the army is intent on saving at least parts of the existing regime and the ruling National Democratic party, then protests are likely to continue, as they did in Tunisia after the ousting of President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.

For outside governments, a Mubarak transition to Mr Suleiman, a long-time Mubarak associate and well-regarded envoy, as head of state, with the promise of constitutional reforms, would be, at this stage, a welcome outcome.

But the mood on the streets has turned against anyone associated with Mr Mubarak.

The army has been hailed as the people’s protector and respect for it grew when it issued a statement on Monday telling protesters it would not use force against them and recognised their demands as legitimate. But the plans and intentions of the generals have not yet become clear.

There are doubts about the army’s willingness to steer the country towards a democratic transition. The intensity of the stand-off and the passion of the protests, however, suggest that easing out Mr Mubarak but maintaining the system will not mark an end of the crisis.

The people’s choice

The scenario demanded by the protesters and opposition groups is the immediate formation of a national unity government that would amend the constitution to allow for free and fair elections.

This option might seem the smoothest, but it would not be easily accomplished.

It is not clear who represents the people on the streets, who come from all walks of life: old, young, secular, Islamist, middle class and dispossessed. For all these groups, a change of leadership has become the magic answer to their specific needs, be it political freedom, jobs or higher living standards.

Opposition parties and civil society groups said on Tuesday they had formed a coalition to press for people’s demands, with members including the association headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former Egyptian diplomat.

But the level of popular support for Mr ElBaradei, who had previously expressed an interest in running for president, has yet to be tested. That another group in the coalition is the Muslim Brotherhood, until now considered the largest grass-roots movement in Egypt, lends strength to the alliance but could also be a source of friction with secular partners.

Opposition figures have played catch-up and their challenge will be to remain united in their demands. The coalition has rejected an offer to negotiate with Mr Suleiman, insisting the army should be the interlocutor.

Donal Mac Fhearraigh


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