from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Understanding Egypt’s Historic Moment

Egypt’s protests put it on the threshold of dramatic change but a range of factors, including the role of the military, will have a critical bearing on the outcome of the crisis, says CFR’s Steven Cook.

January 30, 2011

Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa


Political Movements

The uprising in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak and the military-dominated political system he inherited is shaping up to be a seminal event in the region’s history, ranking with the establishment of Israel, Egypt’s Free Officers’ coup of 1952, and the June 1967 Six Days War. Like these events, the revolution-in-the making has the potential to remake Egyptian and regional politics. Although Mubarak seems to be on the ropes, the outcome of the crisis remains unclear. Mubarak continues to control the coercive apparatus of the state--the military, intelligence services, and what is left of the Ministry of Interior and its forces.  It is entirely possible that a stalemate between the large cross section of Egyptian society that has come out into the streets and the state will ensue.

To understand the unfolding events, it is important to take note of the following actors:

  • The armed forces. Much has been said about the military, especially since troops were deployed to Egyptian streets on Friday evening. The senior commanders are critical actors, but it is worth emphasizing that the military establishment is not necessarily a progressive force. Egypt’s military leaders are the descendants of the Free Officers who built the political system over which Hosni Mubarak now presides and as such are committed to its defense. In addition, Egypt’s officers have benefited materially during Mubarak’s rule, enjoying everything from the procurement of advanced weapons systems to personal enrichment. It is possible that the officers could dump Mubarak to save the regime under new leadership rather than to set the stage for a democratic transition.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers have been Mubarak’s bogeyman for three decades. The regime has played on the ghosts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran to stoke the fears of successive American administrations and, in turn, secure Washington’s generous diplomatic, political, and financial support. Yet the Brotherhood has played a largely secondary role in the current uprising, which is broad-based, encompassing virtually all of Egypt’s political tendencies. Indeed, it is the left and liberals who have been driving current events. And while the Brotherhood remains influential and will likely be a factor if Mubarak goes and there are efforts to establish a civilian coalition government, the Islamists are in some ways compromised. They came late to the demonstrations and have a long history of compromise and accommodation with the Mubarak regime, if only to ensure their survival.
  • Mohamed ElBaradei. The former head of the IAEA and Nobel prize winner, who returned to Cairo on Wednesday night, is trying to give the disparate opposition a leader and a focal point. So far, he seems to have had success with the Muslim Brotherhood and other smaller groups consenting to his leadership. He has struck all the right notes and is media savvy, making it hard for the regime to keep him down. Still, ElBaradei is not known to have a broad constituency outside liberal elite opposition circles and should the demonstrations topple the regime, he is likely to confront competitors in the effort to lead Egypt into a new era.
  • Egypt’s silent majority. There have been all kinds of estimates of how many Egyptians have poured into the streets this past week. Although the demonstrations belie the conventional wisdom-inspired canard that Egyptians are, by their character, passive, the people in the streets still represent only a small fraction of Egypt’s approximately eighty million citizens. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even those who are not out on the streets support the protestors, but the longer the police and internal security services sow chaos on the streets, the more likely it is that this silent majority will want social peace no matter who is president. Mubarak’s statement on Friday night seemed in part designed to cultivate this constituency.
  • The Obama Administration. This is a tough call for the United States. Mubarak has been a loyal ally and has aligned himself to U.S. interests in the region at his own political cost. Some observers rightly point out that the impact of dumping Mubarak on other regional allies could be profound. Yet the costs of ignoring the will of Egyptians who want Mubarak to go and to develop a more open and democratic system would likely be more damaging for Washington in the long run. The Obama administration has thus sought to split the difference and seek a graceful transition from Mubarak. That is why after thirty years without a vice president, Lt. Gen. Omar Soleiman, the country’s intelligence chief, was suddenly sworn into the position on Friday evening. Soleiman is clearly intended to be the bridge to the next leadership, though there is no guarantee that he will give up the presidential chair should he acquire it. At this point, there is very little Washington can do to shape events in a decisive way. Egyptians are now writing their own narrative and any effort on the part of the United States short of a public declaration disassociating Washington from the Mubarak will be interpreted as a sign of support for the discredited dictator.

Egypt--and indeed the entire Middle East--is on the cusp of fundamental change. Although Egyptian influence and prestige has waned in recent years, the country still has the capacity to affect regional politics and trends. As a result, the Egyptian uprising will shake the region. Even if Arab dominoes do not fall, the demise of Mubarak will encourage Arab leaders to engage in either more repression or open their political systems tactically to relieve the pressure building from below. Either way, it is likely to produce significant turbulence in Washington’s relations with the region.