The uprising in the streets of Egypt could remake our world. Turmoil is contagious. The revolt in little Tunisia kindled the timber in Egypt. If the flames are not smothered fast in Egypt, which is still the most influential country of the Arab world, the conflagration will spread across the region.
Three rough scenarios beckon. Only one is less than momentous. If the loyalty of the army holds and the protests are quashed, Egypt will go through a period of intensified repression accompanied by promises of reform that will focus on economics — although in the end they won’twork because the threat of instability will scare away investors. Mubarak will pull back from passing power to his son, Gamal, because that would cause renewed anger. The country would become more of a military dictatorship and less of a party-ruled state. And it might muddle along that way, as it has already for generations. The consequences would be sad for Egyptians, not so major for the rest of the world.
The hopeful scenario is that today’s drama will lead to what in political science jargon is called a “pacted transition,” which means an agreement between the regime and leading opponents on some kind of redistribution of power which could be meaningful only through honest elections. This would create a model that would be hard for the region’s other autocrats to withstand. A wave of democratization would spread over the Middle East like the one that hit Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 (although whether the countries would end up looking more like Poland and the Czech Republic or like Belarus and Kazakhstan would remain an open question).
The frightening scenario is that the army crumbles as the other security organs seem already to have done, that the revolution triumphs, and that the only organized force capable of picking up power from the streets, as Lenin said he did in 1917, is the Muslim Brotherhood. Already reports from the scene tell us that the protestors are shouting Islamist slogans, almost surely not because they are all Islamists but because the Brotherhood is the only force able to seed cadre among the mass of demonstrators.
Were Egypt to fall under Islamist domination, joining Iran and an increasingly Islamicized Turkey, we could be in for a generation or more of Islamist domination of the Middle East. Because the core idea of Islamism is antipathy toward the infidel, this could trigger a genuine “clash of civilizations.”
What should Washington do? After spending two years trying to bury George W. Bush’s calls for democratization in the region and in Egypt in particular, President Obama has begun to embrace the cause. But his calls on all sides to avoid violence seem pathetically behind the curve.
The ideal way forward from a situation such as is unfolding in Egypt is a dialogue between government and opposition after the model of Poland’s “roundtable talks” in 1988–89. But those talks succeeded precisely because the opposition — Solidarity — was already well organized, deeply legitimate, and democratic in its own goals.
Alas no such opposition exists in Egypt. There are official opposition parties that are puppets of the regime. There is the Brotherhood, which is anything but democratic. And the rest have been atomized and crushed.
The best bet for Egypt is to have a genuine presidential election later this year. The election is already scheduled, actually — but so are its results. The US should throw its weight into the demand for entirely new electoral rules. This would mean: 1) radically lowering the threshold for ballot eligibility from the current prohibitive requirements: anyone who can get a few thousand names on a petition should be an official candidate; 2) open campaigning between now and election day, currently scheduled for September: in the last election, campaigning was forbidden until 19 days before voting, making it meaningless; 3) opening voter rolls between now and the election: existing registration rules are so cumbersome that most citizens aren’t registered voters; 4) a fair distribution of media time, especially on television, among all candidates; and, to help ensure all of this as well as unintimidated balloting and honest tabulation, 5) massive international election monitoring, under the UN banner.
If Obama makes such a call, many Egyptian voices will echo it. The current chaos could make things much better for Egypt and the region — or much worse. The time for Obama to find his silver tongue is now.