Egypt after Mubarak: History has been made, but what's next?

Hosni Mubarak has stepped down, and Egyptian protesters are jubilant. Weeks of demonstrations were 'defined by a spirit of unity,' as President Obama said in his recent remarks. But as the military takes over and Muslim Brotherhood leaders begin to speak up, many questions remain.

After 18 days of heroic and determined protests, the crisis in Egypt has led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, followed by, not surprisingly, unprecedented jubilation in the streets. The BBC’s Lyse Doucet reported from the midst of a euphoric crowd in Tahrir Square: “There are people here who have stood here for 18 days and have literally made history in their own country.”

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is the head of the Higher Military Council that has taken control in Egypt – and now de facto head of state. Born in 1935, he was made minister of defense in 1991. He was appointed deputy prime minister on Jan. 29, amid efforts to appease the protesters.

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A leading opposition figure, Mohamed ElBaradei, declared: “This is the greatest day of my life.” The Nobel laureate, like everyone celebrating on the streets, said that Egypt had been “liberated after decades of repression.” He said further that he expects a “beautiful” transition of power in his country.

Key questions for transition

There is no denying that history has already been made by the power of the people in Egypt. Many questions, however, remain during this crucial phase of transition. Former Egyptian Army General Samah Seif El Yazal has told the BBC: “There are two directions the Higher Military Council can go. The first is to ask the existing government to run the country for a transitional period of perhaps a year. The other option is for the military to run the country by committee. We are very anxious to hear from them about what they intend to do.”

The two best-organized forces during the current crisis have been the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter, however, has not been able to play a leading role, largely because of the earlier hesitations of its senior leadership. The leaders hesitated at least for two reasons. One is their aversion to and suspicion of the secular forces. The other is their initial pessimistic estimate of the level of anger and energy of the masses, and their staying power.

It is important to understand that this popular revolt is not about Islam – let alone an Islamic jihad. It is clearly about political freedom and basic economic needs.

Widespread discontent

During my most recent visit to the country as an international adviser to a Cairo-based UN project on Arab Trade and Human Development, I noticed signs of unease among top academics and government officials in spite of the relatively high rate of growth and talks of export diversification during the last few years.

Inequality and poverty have both been rising. Urban poverty was and remains particularly severe. Even by the official measure, over 20 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. The official unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, but the actual rate is much higher.

My long conversations with students, workers, and peasants convinced me that it was only brutal repression by the Egyptian state that was keeping a lid on widespread discontent throughout the Egyptian society.

Legitimate fears, but revolution has begun

The Egyptian people’s revolution, which started on Jan. 25, triggered by the uprising in Tunisia, caught everyone off guard. The protesters most frequently repeated slogan was: “Irhal, ya Mubarak!” (Leave, Mubarak!). For them, Mr. Mubarak was the symbol of oppression and injustice, and in that tone, the protest was far from any backward looking Islamist motivation. As one Muslim analyst has pointed out: Even the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood, dubbed as the most influential mobilizing power in Egypt and the largest Islamist movement, initially took an unusual backseat in this regard.

Unlike the jihadists, Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood believe the “Islamic solution” can happen via democratic process. Also, none of the other opposition political parties seem to even want to take credit for having initiated or even sustaining the revolution, although not for long. The Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties are now making themselves heard in support of the “people power” uprising.

Egypt protests: People to watch

The best political scenario now is a move toward a broad coalition of forces, including those that have come up through the ongoing struggle. This coalition may initially be led by the patriotic and pro-people segment among the military officers. Of course, there are legitimate fears as to whether the oligarchy that Mubarak built up can be controlled well enough so that a genuine transition toward a democracy that will meet people’s basic needs can begin. But the revolution has already begun. It is up to the Army now to recognize the will of the Egyptian people and act accordingly.

Haider Khan is a professor of economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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