When Egyptian opposition groups called for a "Day of Rage" on January 25, few predicted that the protests would escalate into a full-fledged uprising that threatens to unravel Egypt's existing political order. President Hosni Mubarak has announced that he will not run for president again in September, but will that appease the protesters and end the demonstrations? Will these events ultimately lead to a more transparent and democratic government in Egypt? How will the balance of power in the Middle East be affected? And what will this mean for U.S. relations with Egypt and the region?

The Carnegie Endowment and the Project on Middle East Democracy hosted a discussion with Bahey al-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in Cairo, and Neil Hicks, adviser to Human Rights First, on the rapidly evolving situation in Egypt. Carnegie’s Amr Hamzawy joined the conversation by cell phone from Cairo.  Carnegie’s Michele Dunne moderated.

Escalating Violence

In a televised speech on February 2, President Mubarak confirmed that he will not run for a sixth term in office. But anti-government protesters, frustrated by deteriorating economic conditions and limited political freedoms, were not satisfied by the president’s conciliatory gesture. Within hours of the speech, protesters clashed violently with armed regime loyalists who were reportedly paid and mobilized by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). 

  • State-sanctioned militias: Shortly after Mubarak’s speech, bands of regime loyalists mobilized in Alexandria and Cairo, where they violently confronted crowds of anti-government protesters with sticks, knives, and Molotov cocktails. Despite the insistence of Egyptian public officials that these armed militias were rogue elements unaffiliated with state security forces, Dunne cited widespread allegations that the groups were acting in accordance with instructions from the ruling party itself.
  • Military complicity: Although the Egyptian military has been deployed throughout Cairo and other cities, the armed forces have so far refrained from intervening in these violent clashes, Hassan said. At least 1,000 protesters have been injured since the outbreak of violence, according to Hassan, while military personnel stood by passively on the margins of the conflict.
  • Attacks on human rights advocates: Hicks reported that military police raided the offices of several human rights organizations on the morning of February 3, including the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Law Center, where they made numerous arrests.
  • “Massive human catastrophe”: Hassan described the current situation in Cairo as a “massive human catastrophe.” By adopting a passive stance in the face of unrestrained thug violence, the military has failed to control a chaotic environment in which thousands of civilians are vulnerable to physical harm. 
  • Will protests continue? Opposition groups have called for a massive march on the presidential palace at Heliopolis in Cairo, expected to take place on February 4. According to Hassan, tens of thousands of protesters are sleeping overnight in Tahrir Square with no intention of dispersing before the planned march. 

Negotiating Egypt’s Transition

Minutes before the start of the panel discussion, Egypt’s newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, appeared on state television to offer a package of concessions designed to lure the opposition into negotiations with the regime. Whether or not the opposition will be willing to strike a compromise with the ruling cabinet remains unclear, but how the opposition responds to Suleiman’s overture will undoubtedly define the trajectory of political change in Egypt.

  • A package of concessions: In his speech, Suleiman tried to appease the opposition by promising constitutional amendments within 70 days, new elections to replace parliamentary representatives who won seats in rigged races last November, and a formal investigation into acts of violence perpetrated against protesters. Suleiman also stated definitively that neither President Mubarak nor his son Gamal will be candidates in the next presidential election, set to take place in August or September 2011. Although opposition groups have unanimously demanded the dissolution of Egypt’s parliament, Suleiman said that the current parliament must remain intact to implement key amendments to constitutional articles 76 and 77–which deal with presidential term limits and candidacy requirements–in time for the presidential election. As a compromise, he offered to conduct new elections for around 250 seats in the People’s Assembly, to remove representatives whose races were marred by allegations of fraud last fall. 
  • Invitation for Dialogue: Suleiman also invited the full spectrum of Egyptian opposition forces–secular parties as well as the banned Muslim Brotherhood–to engage in negotiations with the regime throughout a transitional period leading up to the presidential election. Since the outbreak of violence in Tahrir Square and Alexandria, however, opposition groups–including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd Party, and the al-Ghad Party–have publicly stated their refusal to engage in a dialogue with the regime until President Mubarak agrees to resign from office. 
  • Egypt’s divided opposition: As is common in societies that have been subject to state repression for decades, Egypt’s opposition is fragmented and weak, Hassan said. He explained that while supporters of the Mubarak regime tend to exaggerate the Brotherhood’s influence, it remains the most organized opposition force in the Egyptian political arena.
  • Looking for opposition leadership: Opposition parties and movements have not yet mobilized behind a single leader. Hassan suggested that Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei is the only public figure capable of inspiring a “minimum consensus.” He added, “If there is only one person who is to be heard by the Egyptian people, it would be ElBaradei.”
  • A face-saving exit for Mubarak:  Speaking from a cell phone on the ground in Cairo, Hamzawy said many Egyptians could be amenable to the compromise laid out by Vice President Suleiman. According to Hamzawy, President Mubarak appears to have signed off on a face-saving bargain in which the thirty-year incumbent president would be permitted to serve out the remainder of his term in office as an “honorary” figurehead while the presidential powers are effectively delegated to Suleiman. In this scenario, Suleiman would bear primary responsibility for managing the transitional period leading up to the presidential election. 
  • Protesters’ morale: Hamzawy observed that the escalating violence has taken a toll on the morale and motivation of protesters, who–in the face of physical exhaustion and food and gasoline shortages–might be willing to accept a compromise solution that “will bring the situation under control and end the violence.”  
  • An unacceptable deal: Although Hamzawy was optimistic that the Egyptian public might be willing to accept Suleiman’s leadership of an interim government, Hassan was not convinced that opposition forces would be content to play only a peripheral role in the transitional process. Despite Suleiman’s assurance that disputed parliamentary races will be re-run within weeks, the election of new representatives to the People’s Assembly would not alter the composition of the ruling cabinet, which will maintain a monopoly on executive power at least until the election of a new president.
  • A new political landscape: However the opposition chooses to respond to Suleiman’s offer, Hamzawy said one thing remains certain: Egypt’s former political landscape has been irrevocably transformed by popular demands for reform. “The old regime and the old formula is over,” Hamzawy said. Whatever the makeup of Egypt’s next government, it will be forced to respond to the grievances of a public that has “regained the street for the first time since 1919,” when a popular uprising ended Great Britain’s colonial occupation of Egypt and Sudan, he added. Furthermore, the ruling party is showing signs of strain and fragmentation in the face of mounting public pressure, Hicks added. The schism between the NDP’s old-guard military figures and a younger generation of neoliberal-minded businessmen is far more pronounced than it was before the start of the protests. Hicks predicted that the party will be forced to grapple with this internal division in the coming months.

U.S. Policy Toward Egypt 

Since the beginning of protests in Egypt, the White House and State Department have expressed strong support for a transitional process leading to free and fair elections in Egypt. Although U.S. officials have stated unambiguously that the process of political change must begin now, they have declined to comment explicitly on whether or not President Mubarak can be entrusted with overseeing that process.

  • Following a fluid situation: According to Hicks, U.S. officials are struggling to keep up with the rapidly evolving situation in Egypt. “The administration is a day behind events, and congress is a day behind the administration,” he said.
  • The hazards of subtlety: By infusing their public statements with vague rhetoric, American officials run the risk of confusing Egyptian and international audiences, Dunne noted. Hicks urged the U.S. government to explicitly call for meaningful and immediate political change in Egypt. “There can be no … quiet acceptance of authoritarianism and dictatorship in such a close ally,” Hicks said.
  • Preventing violence on February 4: Hicks warned of the potential for massive violence if the Egyptian military does not intervene to prevent a confrontation between regime loyalists and anti-government protesters in the massive demonstration expected to take place on February 4. Hicks urged the U.S. administration to “convey to the military leadership in Egypt the consequences of complicity in harm to civilians.”
  • Evaluating military assistance: According to Hicks, U.S. military officials have been in close contact with their Egyptian counterparts since the start of protests. As the recipient of more than $1 billion annually in U.S. military aid, Egypt’s armed forces are likely to avoid any actions that might jeopardize American assistance. Hicks urged U.S. officials to use all means of leverage, including military aid, to “urge the Egyptian military to play a constructive role in preventing violence.”