Demonstrations in Tunisia that forced President Ben Ali to flee the country have sparked mass protests in the region that have spread to Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. The protests in Egypt against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak are growing and unlike anything seen in decades. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher, Marina Ottaway, and Michele Dunne discussed the developments in Egypt and their implications for the Arab world. Amr Hamzawy of Carnegie’s Middle East Center joined live from the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

What Next in Egypt?

The situation in Egypt is changing very rapidly, with major protests and a general strike called for February 1. Hamzawy estimated that these protests will be at least as big as last Friday’s  and noted the Egyptian government has stopped trains entering Cairo in an effort to limit the number of protesters. Dunne explained that the next 24 hours are likely to be a turning point in Egypt; events will move either toward a transition of power of some kind or there will be a forceful crackdown against protesters.

The progress of any transition will be shaped by the actions of the opposition forces and the regime, both of which remain in flux. 

Opposition Forces

  • Leadership and Organization: The protests in both Tunisia and Egypt have been led by decentralized grassroots movements, which have helped prevent the regime from coopting or disrupting them. At the same time, some leadership will be required to negotiate a transition of power, Ottaway said, and the young people leading the protests recognize they will need to hand over the leadership role to more senior individuals. Mohamed ElBaradei has emerged as a potential consensus figure, but Hamzawy noted that serious contestation over leadership continues and ElBaradei has limited credibility among ordinary Egyptians. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood does not believe that he can speak for them as well.
  • Opposition Diversity: Ottaway explained that three different strands of the opposition exist: the liberal youth movement—which has organized most of the protests so far—the labor movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The February 1 protests and general strike will be a very significant indicator of whether these three forces have united. While the Muslim Brotherhood is better organized than the liberal opposition parties, it does not have the support of the majority of Egyptians, Ottaway said, adding that an Islamist government dominated by the Brotherhood is unlikely to emerge.
  • Demands: The opposition’s main demands are for President Mubarak to step down, the parliament to be dissolved, a new Constitutional Assembly to be formed, and new elections for both parliament and president to be held, said Hamzawy. The protests have focused on domestic demands and have not featured either Islamist or anti-American or anti-Israeli slogans. 

The Egyptian Regime

  • The Government: President Mubarak is finished politically, whether tomorrow or in six months, Muasher predicted. The regime’s response to protests has been slow and disappointing, Hamzawy added, and has failed to address the key demands of protesters. Dunne noted that the response to the protests so far has been very top-down, and it remains unclear whether the Egyptian government is willing to negotiate a transition.
  • The Military: The key question is whether the Egyptian military will continue to back Mubarak or follow the Tunisian example and support a transition, Hamzawy said. Egypt is facing a serious economic crisis as a result of the protests and the military will be unable to reestablish order until Mubarak has stepped down, Ottaway predicted. However, Hamzawy cautioned, Mubarak remains the head of the Egyptian military establishment, and the military will not want him arrested or prosecuted. 

Implications for the Arab World

Protests have spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and Jordan, shaking many of the basic assumptions that have sustained autocratic Arab governments. 

  • Spreading Protests: Every Arab regime has tried to say that its country is not Tunisia, but all Arab countries have vulnerabilities, Muasher noted. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already promised political reform, and other Arab governments will also need to enact reforms if they wish to avoid large protests.
  • Governance is the Problem: These protests were initially sparked by economic grievances, but they are primarily about the low quality of governance, Muasher contended. It will not be enough for Arab governments to offer economic concessions. Arab regimes have long claimed economic progress must come before political reform, but economic liberalization without checks and balances has led to increased corruption and discontent, Muasher asserted.
  • The Myth of Gradual Reform: The approach of gradual top-down reform in the Arab world has failed, and Arab regimes no longer have the luxury of postponing reform indefinitely, Muasher explained. Arab publics were long considered docile, but recent events show they will no longer wait patiently for change.
  • Overcoming Fear of Islamists: Arab governments have long argued that political liberalization would allow Islamists to take over, but in Tunisia and Egypt it has been regular citizens, particularly the middle class, who have led the protests. Furthermore, it is precisely the lack of political space that has prevented the rise of liberal opposition movements that could compete with the Islamists, Muasher noted. Additionally, the Islamists are a major political force and peaceful Islamist parties must be included in any unity government for it to be credible, Muasher continued.

Challenges for U.S. Policy

Events in Tunisia and Egypt are threatening the longstanding U.S. policy of supporting friendly Arab autocrats in the name of stability, and the United States will have to reassess its approach to the region. 

  • Getting Off the Fence: The United States has so far maintained a middle position on Egypt, expressing support for both the protesters and the regime, but this is no longer tenable, said Ottaway. Egyptians are disappointed with the slow U.S. response and while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statements on supporting a transition are quite positive, much more is needed, added Hamzawy. Both Ottaway and Hamzawy advised the United States to call for a unity government and free elections. 
  • Preventing More Missed Opportunities: Muasher and Ottaway explained that the United States has missed its opportunity to affect events in Egypt and is now relegated to a spectator’s role. Yet the United States can play an important part in supporting and encouraging serious reform in other Arab countries, Muasher said. Events in Tunisia and Egypt can help the United States break away from the idea that its only two choices are supporting autocrats or facing revolutions, Muasher concluded.  
  • Democracy Assistance: U.S. democracy assistance programs have not been effective in promoting Arab reform, Muasher and Ottaway noted, and have instead been used by both the United States and Arab regimes to promote a façade of support for democracy. 
  • Implications for Israel: Egypt’s population is not pro-Israel and a democratic Egyptian government would likely be less friendly toward Israel. However, Muasher and Ottaway predicted that such a government will be occupied with domestic concerns and is unlikely to radically change Egyptian foreign policy or abrogate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Additionally, Muasher noted that there is currently no credible Israel-Palestine peace process and a withdrawal of Egyptian support for the process would thus have little effect. More broadly, these protests are not about Israel, and Arab publics are frustrated that the United States seems to see them only through the prism of Israel, he concluded.