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.

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.

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

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Egypt

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    Egypt

    Political Movements

  • 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.

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