Mubarak is No Gorbachev

What's next for Egypt? Military dictatorship or religious radicals running the government? None of the options make Washington look good. 

The Obama administration has made a mistake. By pushing for an early and immediate resignation from President Mubarak, the White House has undermined its own standing in the Muslim world as it is unlikely the Egyptian leader will depart anytime soon. And perhaps worse still, if he does, the outcome will be dire.

If Mubarak manages to mobilize a significant section of society in his favor and maintain the loyalty of the military and security services, then he will be able to stabilize the situation in the country and by September, conduct reforms and bring in a new government based on the needs and political realities in the country. Both in the eyes of the Egyptian political elite and the people in the street—not to mention the entire Arab world—this will signify a serious defeat of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. This is particularly true of countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where leaders have remained staunch U.S. allies for decades. Stakeholders in these countries will lose confidence in the Obama administration and, quite probably, will stop regarding Washington as a reliable partner that can be counted on in any internal political crisis.

Oddly enough (and from a Russian perspective, I’ve certainly seen this before), America’s appeal to the Egyptian authorities to refrain from the use of force against the street protesters may turn out to be a catastrophe for the country. When authorities do not dare use force, opposition movements rarely agree to reasonable concessions or compromise. As exemplified by the experience of czarist Russia, the non-use of force by authorities and Czar Nicholas II’s abdication resulted in the collapse of the state. Gorbachev’s decision not to use force when the opposition demanded radical reforms (in the environment of mounting chaos) resulted in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Currently, there are no significant institutionally organized political forces outside of the ruling regime in Egypt, civil society institutes are weak, and there is little communication between political and public actors that would make room for a workable agreement. Under such circumstances an early, free, democratic and competitive election would signify a step toward transferring power to the Muslim Brotherhood. We’ve seen this before in elections within the Palestinian Authority and in Lebanon, where liberal democrats are not in the majority but rather parties like Hamas and Hezbollah are closer to the hopes and aspirations of the man in the street.

Therefore, under the current circumstances there are three possible scenarios. The first one goes as follows: despite the demands of official Washington, Mubarak will stay in power and in September will hold his own elections and liberalize the regime. The second potential outcome: if the crisis is not drawn-out and the military maintains its standing as the savior of the country, a military dictatorship will follow with unclear consequences. According to experts, the Egyptian Army does not have the political experience required to rule. And finally: Mubarak will resign in the near future under pressure brought to bear by both the protesters and Washington. Egypt will, most likely then, be swept up by chaos. Following the elections, weak transitional institutions of power will be formed, dominated by religious radicals.

It is obvious that such a failure in foreign policy will have negative effects on the current administration’s image. The Muslim world will see America as weak and the autocrats now supported by Washington will surely question the wisdom of leaving their fate in the White House’s hands.