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The Irreversible Middle East

What’s in store for the Middle East? There are no clues. This has not prevented many from wishful thinking and kite flying. None can foresee the political landscape of the region in the coming weeks and months. What began as a protest by a marginalized Tunisian is sweeping the region like an uncontrollable wild fire. The prolonged public protests in Egypt have no signs of abating. It is too early to write a definite script.

But some things are clear. Sooner rather than later, President Hosni Mubarak will have to go. His long-cherished dream of installing his son Gamal has gone with the wind. The moot question is: will he ensure for an orderly transfer of power or be ousted from office because the military switched its loyalty, as happed to President Ben Ali in Tunis.

The two key appointments in recent days, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice-President and former air force commander Ahmed Shafik as Prime Minister underscore Mubarak’s desire to keep the military, the source of power and legitimacy in most of the Middle Eastern countries, on his side. Both these appointments are too-little-too-late. Indeed, since assuming office following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, Mubarak has consciously avoided naming his deputy (successor under the Egyptian constitution) and thereby fuelled the succession question. 

In a televised national address this Monday Mubarak promised not to seek re-election in September. He might also consider dissolving the parliament constituted after the highly criticized and massively rigged elections last November as an olive branch to pacify his critics. Promise of an early election under the supervision of judiciary and legalizing opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, might reduce public anger that was manifested in the burning of the ruling NDA office by the protesters. Given the prevailing mood across the country, such offers would most likely be seen as a sign of Mubarak’s weakness; they would only intensify the opposition.

As the chief of air force during the October 1973 war, Mubarak is unlikely to give up power gracefully. Short of ordering a Hama- type crackdown order by Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad against the members of the Muslim Brotherhood in February 1982, Mubarak would continue to the bank upon the loyal military to prolong his stay.

Who wins, who loses? It is rather too early and premature. Gloating over Egyptian chaos might give momentary pleasures to ‘stable’ regimes in the region. Already, Iranian and Syrian leaders have heralded and attributed their ‘stability’ to their steadfastness and anti-Israeli policies. Till the other day President Ben-Ali was also ‘stable’.

The upheavals will have far-reaching implications for Egypt and its 80 million citizens. While other countries and great powers might be interested in cost-benefit calculations, the outcome will be of paramount importance to the Egyptians –who will bear the brunt of these upheavals.

It will no longer be business-as-usual. Not just in Egypt but also in other parts of the Middle East. The genie is out of the bottle and no country in the Middle East is free from the growing public disenchantment with non-governance, corruption, mismanagement and empty rhetoric.

Ironically, both the beleaguered rulers and the restless public are looking to US President Barack Obama for open support. While not ignoring the mood in the Arab street, the White House is cautiously avoiding the call for regime change in Egypt, lest there be a cascading effect throughout the region. So far the anti-Americanism, a common staple for many protests in the Middle East, is conspicuously missing. 

At present there are no credible individuals or groups that can navigate Egypt through these difficult times. As many have observed, the infallible pharaoh has fallen. Post-Mubarak political landscape is far from clear. At least in the short run, chaos, uncertainty and resultant lawlessness would be inevitable. Ordinary Egyptians have tasted freedom, vented their anger at Mubarak, openly demanded an end to his rule and exposed the weaknesses of his iron fist policy. Disfiguring and removal of his portraits are symbolic but reminding public defiance of their leader. Public calls for Mubarak to follow the footsteps of the Tunisian leader and flee the palace convey a deeply cherished Egyptian desire for change.

Stability with democracy? Ideal; but they are unlikely to co-exist anytime soon in Egypt. A breath of fresh air is long overdue. What we must wonder is this: if Mubarak can be overthrown, can other dictators be far behind?

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent.  The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy