As the current crisis in Egypt enters its third week and thousands of anti-government protesters continue to gather in Tahrir Square in opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, a number of critical questions affecting the entire region hang in the balance.
Who will be invited to the bargaining table to create a new form of government? What will that government look like? Should the United States play a role in the process? Will Mubarak attempt to stay in power until his term expires? How long will it take to implement some of the changes protesters are demanding? How many will they ultimately get? Will there be a domino effect in the Middle East?
Four University of Vermont faculty members from the political science, history and anthropology departments – two of whom have spouses from Egypt – and a UVM student who was in Egypt during the uprising, offer their perspective on the historical events taking place in Egypt. These faculty members, along with other national experts on Egypt, will take part in a panel discussion titled "Recent Developments in the Middle East: Local Perspectives," on Feb. 11 at 3:30 p.m. in Room L207 of Lafayette Hall.
Gordon Robison, a lecturer in political science and columnist for Gulf News gulfnews.com/, a daily newspaper published in Dubai, lived in Cairo from 1988 to 1994 and has covered the region for ABC News, CNN and Fox News. He says he was surprised by the size and intensity of the crowds in Tahrir Square, but also by the brutality by which they were met. "That’s not something I thought the Mubarak regime had in it," he says. "Not that it isn’t a very brutal, repressive regime, but there are gradations of brutality, and what we saw last week goes beyond what I think a lot of us who follow Egypt expected to see."
Robison, who interviewed Mubarak in the late 80s and early 90s, marks a ramping up in the level of brutality of the Mubarak regime to a 1995 assassination attempt on Mubarak in Ethiopia. As Mubarak’s power increased, so did his belief that Egypt would fall apart without his leadership, according to Robison.
"I will give Mubarak and new vice president Omar Suleiman this: they really do believe their own propaganda," he says. "When Mubarak says ‘I have to stay on or the entire country will collapse,’ I think he really believes it. That is manifestly ridiculous. No one is that essential. Charles de Gaulle once said ‘the cemeteries are filled with essential, un-replaceable men.’ Similarly, when Suleiman said the other day that we can’t lift the state of emergency and can’t allow democracy, I think he probably believes that. They are sincere in their beliefs that they have no option but to repress people."
As for the odds of Mubarak stepping down and leaving Egypt before the end of his term in September, Robison has his doubts.
"He’s never officially been named president for life, but there’s no tradition in the Arab world of people retiring from a country’s presidency," he says. "There just isn’t. The assumption had always been that he’d run for another term or pass the presidency on to his son Gamal. Despite what Mubarak and Gamal himself told (ABC News Correspondent) Christiane Amanpour last week, it was obvious to everyone that Gamal was being groomed to take over. It’s a lie to say that he wasn’t – and a fairly bare-faced one at that. Because Mubarak believes his own propaganda, he wants to finish his term, and as a matter of honor doesn’t want to be chased from office. It would be a fairly humiliating way to leave your job. He has bought into the myth of his own indispensability."
Robison says that Americans who are asking whether the military will take over, either forgot – or aren’t aware – that the military has run Egypt for close to 60 years with Mubarak, who has always has been a military dictator, and his predecessors at the helm.
"What I have said throughout this process is that the military is very loyal to Mubarak, but they that have a deeper loyalty to the institution of the military," says Robison. "If at some point they conclude that Mubarak has become a threat to the military’s ability to continue to run the country, then they’ll push him aside. You have to balance how much repression the military is willing to cause in the service of how much power it demands on keeping … What the regime wants to do is manage the process in such a way that nothing substantive changes and I suspect that’s not doable. There are a lot of degrees of substantive change, but at the end of the day less is going to change than the protesters want, but the military is going to wind up giving up more now than it thinks it is."
Rethinking stability in the Middle East
Greg Gause, a professor in political science and expert in Middle Eastern politics and international relations, says that if you asked him a month ago about Mubarak’s stability, he would have said that he was doing just fine. "I know some people who say they predicted this, but they’ve been predicting the collapse of the Egyptian regime for the past 15 years," he says. "Even a broken watch is right twice a day. I don’t know anyone serious who said ‘Mubarak looked really stable, but in this last year it just seemed like things were coming apart. Maybe that person exists, but I don’t know who they are."
Gause says it’s easy to say in hindsight that the United States should have been pushing for reform prior to the current uprising but thinks that notion "both underestimates the other issues that we have involved in these relationships, and overestimates our leverage." He points out that the U.S. has been giving the Egyptian government about $2 billion a year, primarily for its military to essentially keep the peace treaty with Israel and cooperate with American security interests.
"We’ve had 30 years of good cooperation with the Egyptians including help in the Gulf War and political support," says Gause. "At what point should we have said, ‘okay, that’s not as important any more as the fundamental lead of the Egyptian government to reform its domestic situation, and that’s what we’re going to prioritize. It seems to me it’s really easy in concept to say that’s what we should have done, but it’s really hard to do. The idea that if we had pushed Mubarak for reform, there would be a nice, stable democratic transition to a government that would continue to cooperate with us and do all the things we want it to do in foreign policy is a heroic assumption. That’s the nicest way I can put that. We can’t micromanage the politics in these countries."
Gause believes most people in Egypt have an idea of what they want in a new government, but that from an American foreign policy perspective – regardless of what kind of democratic government is implemented – it may be less cooperative with the U.S. on certain issues like Arab-Israeli relations or counterterrorism. "That I think is the price America would have to pay. And I’m not saying that that’s not worth it, but you’ve got to know the cost of the policies that you’re advocating. It’s not so simple as to say, ‘oh yes, be with the people, be for democracy and everything will turn out right.’ Overall, I’d like to see us less involved in the Middle East and living with the way Middle Easterners choose to run their show, but there are consequences involved. There’s a cost, but ya know, there’s no ‘cost-less policy.’"
From an academic perspective, Gause says he’s been struck by the fact that for the past 15 to 20 years political scientists have been trying to explain the remarkable durability of the Arab authoritarian state in the face of democratic waves in almost every other part of the world (Latin America, Eastern Europe, East Asia and even democratic change within the Middle East in places like Turkey).
"My generation of political scientists has been trying to explain stable Arab authoritarianism to the point that maybe we missed the factors that were eating away at that stability," he says. "We’ll have to wait and see. In three months we might be saying, ‘well yeah, the Egyptian authoritarianism state was challenged but proved to be stable because it repressed its opposition. But at least right now with Tunisia, Egypt on the ropes, demonstrations in Yemen and Jordan, and calls for demonstrations in Syria and Bahrain and other places, we might be at the beginning of a period where people like me have to reassess our paradigm, which is both frightening but also might turn out to be intellectually inspiring."
Senior William Roman went to Egypt on January 20 to study Egyptian colloquial Arabic and modern standard Arabic at Alexandria University. He was supposed to stay until May 27 but instead was evacuated 10 days later despite not wanting to leave Egypt. "After just 10 days we fell in love with the Egyptian people. They have to be the most gracious, hospitable, helpful and inspiring people I’ve ever met. They often went out of the way, even when it meant risking their own safety, to help defend their homes, families and us American students. They may not be fans of the US government for supporting Mubarak’s dictatorial 30-year reign, but they have no problem with the American people and have a great deal of respect for the U.S. as a great country. We felt no hostility from any Egyptians while we were there. On the contrary, they made us feel quite welcome."
Roman says once the police and security forces disappeared, Egyptian men organized into groups and directed traffic and armed themselves with whatever they could find to defend their family and friends from roving gangs. They also built roadblocks to prevent access to neighborhoods and had a system of signaling each other with whistles and flares. "It was incredible and really showed the unbelievable sense of duty and community of the Egyptian people," he says. "It is for this reason that I believe that no matter what the government throws at them, the Egyptian people are going to pull together to fight for their rights and won’t stop until Mubarak is overthrown."
Roman says he spoke with Christians and Muslims in Egypt and is convinced that they will unite for democracy and that the situation there is "not an Islamic revolution like many in the media have claimed." He says it’s a mistake to compare the current situation in Egypt with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as some political pundits have done. Bogac Ergene, an associate professor in history and director of UVM’s Middle East Studies Program, agrees, saying that the uprising in Egypt is unlike past revolutions in the Middle East in that it’s not religiously-driven.
"These types of uprisings don’t happen very often in the Middle East," says Ergene, who specializes in Islam and world, social theory and cultural studies. "The Iranian Revolution was clergy-led, but that’s not the case in Egypt. It’s interesting because Egyptians are very subservient and don’t usually demand rights. But now they’re making demands and want a complete creation of a new democratic government. They want to work for political parties and live like normal people. Even if Mubarak stays in power, there will be a much different kind of environment. We are witnessing the making of history."
Elizabeth Smith, assistant professor in anthropology, whose research focuses on how Nubians in Egypt are represented in popular culture, tourism, and museums in Cairo and Aswan, lived in Egypt for six years and worked in university administration at the American University in Cairo. She and her husband, who is from Egypt, have been speaking daily with friends and relatives who are inspired after seeing protesters stand up and demand their rights for the first time.
"There’s a great deal of pride in what’s happening there right now; pride in people’s courage to stand and speak and risk their lives," says Smith. "There’s also a great feeling of hope for the future. The possibility for the realization of the potential of these people is bringing out the best in them."
Smith says the general mood in Egypt had grown darker and more pessimistic over the past few years, due in part to high unemployment and a visible concentration of wealth that reeks of corruption. Governmental suppression and civil rights violations also contributed to a growing level of frustration leading to the current uprising, she says. Smith is optimistic that the various factions will come together to create a new form of government. "Mubarak has been in power since my husband was born in 1981," says Smith, who is pregnant and due in May. "Our greatest hope is for our son to be born to see a new government in Egypt."