Egypt On The Brink - But Of What?

By Alastair Newton - 01 February 2011

“Egypt’s army…may now be developing a new vision of how the state’s interests ought to be preserved – one that need not include Mr Mubarak.”

Bassma Kodmani, 31 January 2011[i]

The Mubarak era in Egypt is drawing to a close. But it remains to be seen how long present situation drags out and whether the army will be able to engineer a reasonably smooth transition – the most likely outcome, despite the uncertainties. Disorderly regime collapse in Cairo likely could spark more contagion across the MENA region. But for the time being other potentially volatile countries appear to be awaiting a clearer idea of where Egypt is headed.

The Mubarak Era Is All But Over

It now looks inconceivable that Hosni Mubarak can stand for a seventh term as president in an election due in September. Furthermore, the tenor of the protests makes it clear that his second son, Gamal, is not an acceptable successor.

The 29 January appointment of Omar Suleiman as Vice-President – a clear indication of the army’s (long-standing) first choice for the succession – does not look likely to be acceptable to the population at large.[ii] At best, he may be credible as a transition leader. But it still isn’t clear whether unrest will continue until there is a clean sweep of the present regime – as has been the case (largely successfully, it now appears) in Tunisia.[iii]

So, the big questions are: (a) whether the army – which remains the ultimate powerbroker in Egypt – can still engineer a reasonably smooth regime evolution and (b) if so, how.[iv]

Pros And Cons Confront The Powerbrokers

On the plus side:

·       Although demonstrations are continuing, press reports suggest that some degree of normality has returned to the streets after the looting etc of late last week;

·       The relatively warm reception which the army has received from demonstrators is confirmation that the military does still have popular leverage, which will have been bolstered by its 31 January ruling out of the use of force against protestors;[v] and,

·       There is no evidence as yet to support the claims of the regime of last week – now toned down – that the (banned) Muslim Brotherhood is behind the protests.

On the minus side, although the army may well be prepared to tell – or, indeed, have already told – President Mubarak it is time to go:

·       The president is noted for his stubbornness and may yet take some persuading;[vi]

·       Although he has become a rallying point for protesters over the weekend, it isn’t yet clear that Mohamed ElBaradei offers a credible alternative to the status quo, either for the army or for Egypt’s electorate as a whole;[vii] and,

·       The Muslim Brotherhood is the only credible structured opposition group in Egypt and therefore in a potentially strong position to take advantage of any power vacuum.[viii]

Key allies – including, importantly, the US – are calling for an “orderly transition” ie a thinly coded call for Mr Mubarak to go. However, he has seen off US calls for democratic reform on more than one occasion in the past.

What Next?

It therefore appears likely that the present stand-off on the streets could continue for some days yet, possibly exacerbated by a general strike which has been called for this week. If successful that would certainly add to the pressure on the regime especially if it were to put at risk transit through the Suez Canal. Closure of Suez would further fuel concerns among the international community and in financial markets, to the point where I believe the army would almost certainly step in immediately to keep the canal open.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is widely considered to be a broad church with a conservative older generation leadership and a more liberal younger

element. The resultant divisions of view in its ranks (strategic and tactical) are clearly visible to external observers.[ix] But, in the absence of any other credible opposition group, the Brotherhood does enjoy widespread support. In the 2005 parliamentary election its candidates (standing as independents) secured 86 out of 454 seats despite innumerable hurdles in their way.[x] Expert opinion is therefore that the Brotherhood could realistically win a plurality, if not a majority, in a genuinely free and fair election. The army, which is staunchly secular, is unlikely to risk this.

That said, if the Brotherhood were to find itself in power it is by no means clear (a) how Islamist, or (b) how pro-business it would be. But the US, EU and Israel at least would all find the prospect unpalatable given MB’s close association with Hamas. Pro-reform pressure from Egypt’s allies may therefore have its limits.

An Orderly Ouster?

Overall, it therefore appears likely that the army is indeed preparing to try to engineer a succession coupled with some political reform.  But it would prefer to see a significant measure of order restored before finally pulling the trigger on Mr Mubarak so that it is not perceived to be acting out of weakness. And it may want to be able to present a credible and widely acceptable successor at the same time – possibly Mr ElBaradei although other candidates will emerge and could include: Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and currently Secretary-General of the Arab League; or, perhaps, Youssef Boutros Ghali who was the highly respected finance minister from 2004 until Mr Mubarak dismissed the cabinet at the end of last week.[xi]

Even then, it remains to be seen whether the electorate would:

·       Accept a presidential election under the present rules for nomination etc;

·       Be prepared to wait until September for that election – probably implying a transitional period (with Mr Suleiman at the helm?) as things stand; and,

·       Demand early parliamentary elections under new rules.

If events move forward fairly quickly (ie reach some sort of watershed within days rather than weeks), a process along these lines could probably still be managed with incremental, rather than wholesale, reform to the present systems. However, delay is likely to lead to greater demands as frustration builds and opposition groups likely become more organised.

Regional Implications

For now, the rest of the MENA region appears to be awaiting developments in Egypt.

A relatively orderly transition there would almost certainly not be the end of the story. But it would be consistent with the view that Tunisia was a “rise of Solidarity” event rather than a “fall of Berlin Wall” moment for the region.[xii] On the other hand, disorderly regime collapse in Egypt – especially if it were to put MB in the driving seat – could spur further unrest across the region.[xiii] In particular (alphabetically):

·       Algeria has seen food price-triggered unrest. Steps (clampdowns, wheat purchases) have been taken to counter this. But similar challenges to those confronting Egypt persist;

·       Bahrain is characterised by persistent tensions between its Sunni-dominated authorities and the Shia majority which could be exacerbated by unrest elsewhere in the region;

·       Iran has a similar socio-economic/demographic profile to Tunisia. But the opposition appears to be cowed by the suppression which followed the June 2009 election and a popular uprising there looks very unlikely;

·       Jordan has, so far, seen protests directed at the government; if these were to be extended to the royal family (unlikely, in my view), expert opinion is that there would be considerable cause for concern;

·       Oman is the only GCC member so far to have reported unrest following the regime collapse in Tunisia;

·       Yemen, a failing state, has already seen considerable unrest following the regime collapse in Tunisia. If this persists it could create more space for al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which already poses a significant regional terrorist threat.

As things stand, therefore, there is only minimal threat to oil/gas production – which appears to be the current sense in markets to judge by the fairly modest upward movement in the oil price to date.

But the short- to medium-term fate of Egypt may yet prove pivotal in determining whether that remains the case.



Alastair Newton is Senior Political Analyst at Nomura International plc and President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies [BRISMES]. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Nomura International plc or BRISMES. 




[i] “Army will craft a post-Mubarak era” by Bassma Kodmani, Financial Times, 31 January 2010.

[ii] Lieutenant General Suleiman has been head of Egypt’s intelligence service, EGID, since the 1990s and is a close confidant of Mr Mubarak. The 31 January announcement that he is to chair a group of “all political forces” to consider constitutional and legislative reform may bolster his credibility with the protestors as a transitional head of state.

[iii] At present following the appointment of a new cabinet on 27 January, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi remains in office in Tunis; but others associated with the Ben Ali regime – including in the key portfolios of defence, interior and foreign affairs – have been replaced by individuals widely seen as independent. See, eg, “Tunisia names 12 new ministers to Cabinet” by Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, 28 January 2011.

[iv] See, eg, “Only certainty is that the army will play a dominant role” by Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 31 January 2011.

[v] See, eg, “Army rules out force against protestors” by Andrew England, Financial Times, 1 February 2011.

[vi] See, eg, “Man in the News: Hosni Mubarak” by Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 28 January 2011.

[vii] Mr ElBaradei’s credibility may have been damaged by what appeared to be early Muslim Brotherhood willingness to recognise him as a spokesman – even though that may now have been withdrawn (nb: there are conflicting reports at this stage). See, eg, “Nobel laureate claims popular mandate” by Andrew England, Financial Times, 31 January 2011.

[viii] See, eg, “Muslim Brotherhood has a head start” by Roula Khalaf, Financial Times, 31 January 2011.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] One consequence of this success was that the Brotherhood found even more obstacles in its way in the 2010 election and withdrew from the second round of voting.

[xi] Although the entire team responsible for economic reform was dismissed in the cabinet reshuffle, the key posts of foreign and defence minister have not changed in a reshuffle which is widely seen as strengthening the military’s position in cabinet. One consequence of Mr Boutros Ghali’s dismissal from cabinet is that it could bolster his acceptability as a senior member of a future regime.

[xii] “Tunisia heralds a long battle for Arab reform” by Rami Khouri, Financial Times, 16 January 2011.

[xiii] The FT’s Roula Khalaf offers a different – and plausible – view, ie that “a descent into chaos [in Egypt] could put the brakes on popular anger from moving on to its next target: see “Only certainty is that the army will play a dominant role”, Financial Times, 31 January 2011.

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