Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Best Outcomes in Egypt

Sunday morning, watching Meet the Press, my roommate turned to me and asked, “What’s the best outcome in Egypt?”  My initial response was a question back about who’s perspective she wanted to look at it.  So in this post, I’m going to consider the situation and the best outcome for a few different constituencies.  For a primer, Steven Cook has a great post up at CFR that identifies many of the same players I do.

Hosni Mubarak
This is the easy one.  For President Mubarak, the best outcome is to somehow retain power, give up no ground on democratic reforms, and essentially put down this insurrection.  His best outcome is a return to the prior status quo.  Now that seems increasingly unlikley, so a second best option is to grant limited democratic reforms in exchange for the support of the army.  He’d be in power, but diminished and likely be able to slowly transition out.  His third best option at this point is to simply make it out alive.  Of course, as Will Wilkinson points out, Mubarak is a survivor.

The Egyptian Army
With the decision by the army, at least as I write this, that they will not fire on the protesters.  This would seem to confirm the interesting space the army holds in Egyptian society, where it has benefited from the patronage of Mubarak, but also has the respect of the Egyptian populace.  I would not be at all surprised if the army brass are extracting concessions from Mubarak now, or, in their best scenario, they are inserting themselves into a settlement that would give them temporary control while a transition government is assembled.  They could move independently to restore law and order and under that guise assume control without a settlement.  If they are given control they could extract a high cost to relinquish it.

The Muslim Brotherhood
There is a lot of commentary out there that doesn’t believe the Muslim Brotherhood is in a strong position to gain from this unrest, but I think that commentary is misguided.  They didn’t start the protests, but they are out there giving protesters water, developing a constituency.  They have been the regime’s foil for pretty much all of Mubarak’s three decades in power, and were really the original Islamist group inspiring all manner of off shoots.  While they don’t have the power or organization to seize power, if the protests drag out and the vacuum remains unfilled I could seem them stepping into the void a la the Iranian revolution of 1979.  This would likely be the best outcome they could hope for.  Though I agree with Matt Steinglass that this situation is quite different then the one in Iran in 1979.  Meanwhile, Les Gelb isn’t optimistic about the Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States
As you might expect, given Mubarak’s client status, our best option is Mubarak’s second best.  It’s clear from the media appearances of administation officials that the US doesn’t want Egypt to return to the prior status quo.  They want a peaceful transition to something closer to democracy in the country, but  it doesn’t do us any good to have Mubarak thrown out entirely.  He and his high level lieutenants give the US some connection to the transition and the only shot the US has to influence the final outcome.  Let me also say, I agree with Matthew Duss posting at The American Prospect, the US has to work with (or at the very least not undermine) Islamist political parties, particularly parties that demonstrate a commitment to human rights.  That has not been the traditional outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood, but power can be a moderating venture.

The Egyptian People
There is no good outcome for the Egyptian people.  In the immediate, they could be looking at sustained weeks or even months of a breakdown of law and order.  The problems they face economically will take decades to solve.  Countries without a tradition of democracy have a hard time with the transition and often ineffectual governments spin like revolving doors providing little comfort to the people.  The best outcome is modest democratic reform that allows the nation to get used to the practice and hope that the this leads to broader liberalization of the electoral system.

So that’s what I see as the best outcomes for a number of groups.  These predictions are subject to change given the situation on the ground, but I think there are good chances they’ll hold.  It’s disappointing that the Egyptian people won’t come out of this better, but I just don’t think that’s how it will happen.

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