Special Report: How the Egyptian revolt will recast the Middle East

Three scenarios for the way the uprising might end and what it all means for the US, Israel, and Iran.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Protesters at Cairo's Tahrir Square are seen defying curfew on Jan. 30.
Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP Photo
The crowd gathers in Tahrir or Liberation Square in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 1. More than a quarter-million people flooded into the heart of Cairo Tuesday, filling the city's main square for a demonstration in a week of unceasing demands for President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Iman Mosharafa points at the loose curls spilling over her red sweater. The gesture emphasizes that she isn't wearing an Islamic head scarf. "Look, I'm not from the Muslim Brotherhood," she says in an interview in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Ms. Mosharafa – a teacher, a member of the burgeoning Egyptian middle class – says it is secular young people such as herself who are the engine powering protests that have shaken the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's modern pharaoh. "We are the silent majority that has been silent for so long, but not anymore," she says.

Magda Abdel Hamid, in contrast, isn't middle class. She works as a cleaner in a hospital, and her head scarf and clothes indicate she may come from a farming family. She is tired of rising food prices and water and housing shortages. She stumbled on the protests on her way home from work and decided to join, even though she had done nothing like that before in her life.

"We left our children at home and came to fight for their future here," she says.

Business owner Abu Bakr Makhlouf is a member of Egypt's elite. He wears a stylish overcoat to ward off the chill of Tahrir Square. He wasn't politically active in the past – he used to worry about what might happen to his children. Now he's been through the tear gas and the rattling batons and thinks it's better for his family if he fights. "I will stay here – I told my wife not to wait for me. There's no way back for us," he says.

Still they rise. In Egypt a population has lost its fear of authority and taken to the streets in protests likely to change their nation – and the Arab world – forever. The only question is how.

Is this democracy's moment? That's what many of the protesters say they want. Egyptians across the spectrum – young, old, poor, comfortable, religious, secular – are talking the language of elections and freedom. After 30 years of Mr. Mubarak, they don't want to be ruled by another authoritarian ex-general in a suit.

But in this case the protesters have outrun the politicians. The secular political opposition to Mubarak is weak, due to decades of oppression. There are few figures of stature for the protesters to rally around.

True, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has won kudos by racing home to demand change, getting sprayed by water cannon in the process. But the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is a professional bureaucrat who's lived abroad for years. "Have you seen him out there with his leather jacket and bullhorn?" asks one US-based expert. "He looks a little uneasy."

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition group, remains a substantial force with unknown intentions. In open elections, Islamic parties might get about one-third of the Egyptian vote, according to many estimates. Behind the scenes the military still controls the nation's infrastructure of power, through wide business interests and close ties with government officials. Top generals see themselves as descendents of the Free Officers, the junior Army leaders who toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and installed Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser in power. They're unlikely to cede power-broker status willingly.

For now, the waiting begins. If history is any guide, this is only the early stage of a process that might someday earn the name "Egyptian Revolution," says Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

After all, the French Revolution went through a series of distinct phases before Napoleon Bonaparte ended it by seizing power. The 1917 Russian Revolution first toppled a monarchy, and then veered into civil war. Even the United States did not get around to writing its Constitution until four years after the war for independence from Britain ended.

The events in Egypt are not as big as the French or Russian revolts – few things are. But the experiences of other nations indicate that humility should guide predictions of what a post-Mubarak government will look like. "No one knows exactly where this will end up," says Mr. Walt.

* * *

Mubarak was a dutiful Egyptian Air Force pilot. Gaining his wings in 1950, he moved quickly through the ranks. He made squadron leader after traveling to the Soviet Union in the late 1950s to learn to fly Tu-16 "Badger" jet bombers. By 1972, he was Air Force commander. Mubarak "likes to read and play squash frequently," said his official military bio sheet at the time.

The charismatic Anwar Sadat – himself an ex-Army officer – in 1975 picked the uncharismatic but loyal Mubarak to serve as vice president. Six years later, they were sitting side by side at a Cairo parade when renegade Islamist soldiers pulled out their automatic weapons and began firing. Sadat was killed. Mubarak, wounded in the hand, was hustled to safety.

Many Western analysts were unsure Mubarak would last long when he assumed the Egyptian presidency. He had no popular following or international stature, after all. Many of those same Western analysts are now retired. Meanwhile, Mubarak has ruled for three decades – longer than any Egyptian leader since the 19th-century founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha.

In part this is because he has governed as a quasi-military ruler. For his entire period in office, Mubarak has kept the nation under emergency law, giving his police sweeping powers of arrest and the right to ignore Egyptians' basic freedoms. Authorities have used torture and indefinite detention to crush dissent. Having swept away any moderate opposition, Mubarak has long sold himself as a bulwark of stability, saying, in essence, "It's me, or Sadat's assassins."

"There are secular opposition parties, but they are weak and they have been made weak by tremendous pressure from the Mubarak government," says Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On foreign policy, the Mubarak regime has been a staunch US ally in a region short on friends. Mubarak has honored the cold peace with Israel while allowing US forces to stage operations through Egypt and Egyptian generals to train in the US. He has continued economic reforms, begun under Sadat, that turned Egypt away from Nasser's socialism. To some extent, those have been effective. As poor countries go, Egypt is not in the bottom ranks, even in the Arab world.

"Egypt's poverty is not high by international standards," writes Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, in an analysis of the nation's economic standing. "Incomes have steadily risen, and progress on life expectancy, infant mortality, years of education, and other indicators there has been impressive."

But unemployment does remain high, particularly among educated urban youth. And inequality is stark. In Cairo, businessmen linked to the ruling National Democratic Party and to Mubarak's son Gamal live lavishly, luxury cars ferrying them from gated homes to offices in high-rises overlooking the Nile. Those Mercedes sedans travel streets filled with ordinary Egyptians trying to eke out an existence. Some 40 percent of Egypt's people live on $2 or less a day.

After three decades, the Mubarak era clearly was nearing an end even before Tahrir Square exploded with demonstrations. Yet Mubarak has done little to prepare the way for any successor. Until days ago he had no vice president. He had given no public indication of who, or what, he wanted to come next. Egyptians have long thought Mubarak wants his son Gamal to succeed him in a sort of pseudomonarchy; but they didn't really know, because he hadn't said. The whole succession issue had the nation on tenterhooks, said Jon Alterman, senior fellow in Middle East Programs at the Center for Strategic and International Initiatives, in a recent podcast on Egypt's revolt. So the nation took the issue into its own hands.

"What is happening now is people are saying, 'We're not waiting until the president decides he wants to leave. We're demanding answers,' " said Mr. Alterman.

* * *

It seems Egyptians had reached a tipping point. For years, they watched as their nation's political and cultural prestige drained away like water from a rust-holed bowl. A vibrant Egypt used to be the center of the Arab world. Its decline has been hard for many to accept.

Then came a spark – Tunisia. The Jasmine Revolution was powered by street protests that chased kleptocrat President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in January. If it could happen there, why couldn't it happen here? That's the question Egyptians began to ask.

Protester after protester gathered in Tahrir Square cites Tunisia as inspiration. Take business owner Sherif Ali, who says he participated in his first political demonstration on Jan. 25.

Protests in Egypt used to be 500 people facing 3,000 riot police and 5,000 plainclothes thugs, he says. The odds were bad. "But the Tunisian thing made the dream come alive," he says.

Egypt was waiting for that push. And now that the fear that shackled the people has broken, there's no stopping them. "This is now a free country and the people won't go back. They won't accept that," says Mr. Ali.

* * *

Lately there's a worst-case scenario that haunts the dreams of some national security analysts, and it goes like this: Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Yemen are run by Islamic fundamentalist governments. Islamists seize power after a prolonged period of chaos that follows Mubarak's departure.

Oil prices spike following closure of the Suez Canal. Egypt renounces its peace pact with Israel, and the Israeli government strains to maintain its status as the region's military superpower. Iran, sniffing opportunity, pays for Hezbollah to redouble artillery assaults on Israel from Lebanon and for heavy weapons to be smuggled to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. By now, Iran has nuclear weapons. Israel has nuclear weapons.

This is the point at which the analysts wake up. This scenario is highly unlikely – as is the best-case scenario in which a democratic Egypt applies for membership in the European Union. But it underscores that revolutions often don't end well, even if they begin with goodwill and flowers.

"These kinds of transitions are extraordinarily difficult," Kenneth Pollock, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said at a recent seminar on events in Egypt.

There are more realistic scenarios for Egypt's future. One is that the current standoff continues. Mubarak does not hop a flight for Europe, protests continue, and the whole thing starts to unravel – the military enters the fray, starts shooting, and the protesters begin to get more radical and violent. Gamal Mubarak seizes power and rules a seething population at gunpoint.

The middle scenario – the one the US wants, the one most experts think is the direction in which Egypt is headed – is a soft coup managed by military officials. Mubarak is shuffled off-stage. A military-approved figurehead takes power and oversees a redrawing of the Constitution to provide for more democratic freedoms. Elections take place, perhaps even in September, as currently scheduled.

Recent experience in Iraq and elsewhere has shown that premature elections, held before political parties organize themselves and processes are in place, can lead to political gridlock. So it would be nice if Egypt has a long glide path toward its first post-Mubarak vote. But that probably won't happen. In this scenario, elections are likely to occur when the Egyptian people want them to occur, which means soon.

"I think maybe three months," Jennifer Windsor, associate dean at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said at the Brookings seminar.

A final scenario has the military itself breaking apart. Senior leaders order some sort of crackdown in an effort to preserve the patronage and status they've accrued during the decades of Mubarak's rule. Junior officers and troops refuse, in an echo of the grass-roots Free Officers coup that put Nasser in power.

A wild card here is the intention of the Muslim Brotherhood. Destroyed as a political force by Mubarak's secret police, it has reinvented itself as a social service and theological institution. Does it want to continue to accrue soft power through good works? Or will its leaders try to step in front and lead a parade of the people that no one saw coming?

* * *

Those are questions that certainly preoccupy Washington as it tries to anticipate what the Egyptian upheaval means for long-term US interests in the region. When the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago, the US was viewed as standing on the right side of history, setting its tone for relations with a transformed Europe as new democracies emerged.

Today, as the wave of people-powered reform rises across the Middle East, the US – if not exactly on the wrong side of history – is widely seen as lagging in its response. And, having to play catch-up, as new political voices and powers emerge, will limit US influence and affect the challenges ahead as the region transforms itself.

"We are going to have to figure out how we will deal with and win the trust of these new political forces that in some cases are more anti-American, and that generally speaking do not think of the US as having been on their side," says Julie Taylor, a Middle East expert with the RAND Corp., a think tank in Arlington, Va. "It's going to take nuanced measures with a variety of groups, and that will be a departure from the way we have been conducting ourselves in the Middle East up to this point."

The dire pictures of a Middle East slipping to the brink of war or falling under the yoke of Islamist extremists, say most regional experts, are not likely. While Islamist organizations may indeed gain in stature and influence, analysts say, the US should not be bracing for the rise of Islamist regimes.

"We need not be worried about a whole series of Irans popping up," says Graeme Bannerman, a former US diplomat who is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "But there will be a more Islamic tone to political affairs as more representative systems acknowledge what are generally less secular societies, and we are going to have to adjust to that."

One factor that will help the US in its relations with a changing region is the strong military-to-military relationships developed over decades, most notably with the Egyptian Army. As events in Egypt are demonstrating, the military is emerging as the one institution that all factions are turning to for support – and, significantly, the military received much of its training and funding from the US.

"The strong military ties are a fundamental aspect of our relations, and they aren't going to change," says Ms. Taylor. "Egyptian military officers are still going to want access to US funding, training, and advice."

Still, perhaps the major challenge the US can expect to face in the years ahead is this: The more truly representative once authoritarian governments become, the more pushback the US is likely to encounter to its policies.

"It's always risky to predict what will come out of a revolution, especially when you are in the middle of it, but it does appear we're going to see a major shift to more popular representative governments in the region," says Dr. Bannerman. "The problem for the US is that the overwhelming majority of people in the region do not support the US and its policies as their governments have, so this new environment will require some adjusting of the way we've done things."

Significantly, most analysts expect the US-brokered – and underwritten – Israeli-Egyptian peace accords to hold and remain the foundation of the region's security arrangement. Egyptian rhetoric toward Israel may indeed turn more hostile, but both Egypt and Israel have benefited from the Camp David Accords – and no government in either country is seen seeking to upend them.

* * *

Yet this doesn't mean there isn't intense nervousness in Tel Aviv over what's happening next door. Israel's 30-year peace with Egypt has survived Middle Eastern wars, assassinations, and uprisings. It's been so stable that many here even have come to take it for granted. But now, Israelis are anxiously watching to see if the relationship can survive the tumult of regime change.

That explains why, as much of the rest of the world celebrated the surge of Arab grass-roots democracy protests, the overriding reaction of Israelis has been outright fear.

For decades, the peace with Egypt was the pillar of Israel's military and diplomatic posture in the region. Peace with Egypt meant Israel didn't have to worry about confronting the region's largest army on its southern flank. Ties with Egypt symbolize the seminal success of the land-for-peace formula for Arab-Israeli negotiations. The bilateral ties have become even tighter with a multibillion-dollar agreement for Israel to import natural gas from Egypt.

And in recent years, the alliance has become part of a fulcrum of countries opposed to the growing power of Iran and its allies.

"The truly substantive nature of the relationship is the broad strategic understanding with the way we have to deal with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Islamists in general," says Yossi Alpher, coeditor of the Israeli Palestinian opinion journal Bitterlemons.org. "If any of these substantive issues is touched negatively, then it touches Israel militarily, and it affects the way Israel allocates its resources to deal with strategic needs."

The prospect of a new government in Cairo is revealing a defect of the Egyptian peace: While the two governments built a close diplomatic and military relationship, the rapprochement didn't create tight bonds between Egyptian and Israeli societies. The peace treaty with Egypt didn't translate into momentum to solve Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.

Consequently, Israelis see any possible successor to Mubarak, except for his newly appointed deputy, Omar Suleiman, as a portent of declining relations. In particular, the expected empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood has raised the specter of an increasingly formidable Islamic movement that will give Iran, Israel's archenemy, more influence in the region.

"Israel will have to adjust to the fact that the whole strategy and policy in terms of regional and global relations of the new regime is going to change," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "Anybody who is perceived as Mubarak's supporter will not be popular." That will mean, he adds, "a more pro-Palestinian and anti-American agenda."

Even though many analysts expect the framework of the peace treaty to survive, a chill in relations with Cairo could lead to Israel's further isolation in the region. This, in turn, may prompt Israel's hard-line government to adopt more of a bunker mentality: spurning territorial concessions and spending more money to strengthen its military. Already, the volatility in Egypt is spurring Israeli hard-liners to argue for a stricter emphasis on security in peace talks.

"The unavoidable lesson is that Israel's security needs should be stressed over any other requirement, including the lofty dream of reaching peace agreements," wrote Yaakov Armidror, a former general, in the right-leaning daily Yisrael Hayom.

The counterargument being discussed is for Israel to accelerate peace overtures with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Reviving dormant negotiations would mitigate the possible strategic damage of a less friendly Egyptian regime.

"It would make a difference in the behavior of whatever regime emerges," says Mr. Alpher. "It would make a difference in the way King Abdullah of Jordan calculates his move in what is a worrisome environment."

* * *

It will also, no doubt, change some calculations for America and Israel's nemesis in the region, Iran. Tehran faces its own dilemma over the unrest in Egypt.

On one hand, the demonstrations look eerily similar to Iran's own pro-democracy Green Movement protest – and merciless crackdown – in mid-2009. Opposition leaders in Iran say they are praying for the "victory" of Arab protesters, and that Iran's 2009 example may have encouraged the current wave of Arab unrest.

On the other hand, senior Iranian officials are touting the events in Egypt as an act of revolutionary comeuppance for a US ally and "Zionist puppet," which will only enhance Iran's stature.

They, too, claim to be praying for victory for the Egyptian protesters – though these are the same Iranian officials who have brutally blocked similar gatherings in Iran. Without a trace of irony, Iran's new foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, gave his support: "On our part we are going along with the freedom seekers of the world and support the uprising of the great nation of Egypt."

The Arab unrest comes at a moment when Iran's influence in the region is in flux. Its standing peaked in 2006, after a 33-day war between Israel and the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Both Washington and Tehran swiftly turned it into a regional grudge match; when it was over, Hezbollah called it a "divine victory." At the same time, Iran was expanding its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan while US forces were bogged down with fighting.

But the violent crackdown on the Green Movement in 2009 eroded Iran's claims of leadership of the Islamic world, which for years were based on the popularity of Iran's own Islamic revolution in 1979. Now opposition activists hope the examples of Arab people power might reignite the underground Green Movement.

"No power can suppress people's will and demand," Mir Hossein Mousavi, former Iranian presidential candidate and opposition leader, said in a statement. "Sooner or later, autocratic and tyrant powers are sentenced to vanish."

* * *

One thing is clear on the streets of Cairo: The people want Hosni Mubarak to vanish. Fahd Rady Aziz has come all the way from Luxor, in southern Egypt, to Cairo to participate in history. He's wearing cheap plastic sandals, which are unsuitable for the debris that now covers parts of Tahrir Square.

He is 28, an age when he should be married and starting a family. But he's single, because he has no job, can't afford to buy an apartment, and thus can't attract a spouse. He blames Mubarak's regime for creating such difficult circumstances.

"No marriage, no kids, no apartment, no money," he says.

With no attachments to hold him back he decided to join the protests.

"We didn't participate before because we were afraid of the regime," he says. "We were weak; we were small. But now we're all together, and we're strong. With one voice, we are saying we don't want Hosni Mubarak."

It's a loud voice and one that will, no matter what the precise outcome, echo through history.

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Contributing to this report were correspondent Kristen Chick in Cairo; staff writers Dan Murphy in Cairo, Howard LaFranchi in Washington, and Scott Peterson in Istanbul, Turkey; and correspondent Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv.