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Opinion

Change and continuity in Egypt after Mubarak

No sooner had President Hosni Mubarak announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election than the protesters who brought him low rejected his gesture. As a result, it’s still unclear whether Mubarak will leave abruptly or after a period of transition; that, ultimately, will be up to the Egyptian people. But either way, the country appears to be on the verge of a post-Mubarak order. It’s not too soon to ponder what that will look like.

The first question is whether Mubarak’s departure will empower Egyptians by leading to a more representative government in which dissent is tolerated and there are genuine choices for voters. That should be the priority of reformers in any negotiations with what survives of Mubarak’s government. It would be a betrayal of the past week’s revolution if it didn’t produce free and fair elections, yet history has shown that deposing a dictator does not lead inevitably and inexorably to democracy.

The involvement in the opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood has worried some in the United States, who see in its participation in a new government the specters of Iran, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. But this was not the Brotherhood’s revolution, and the group, which is not as radical as Hamas or Hezbollah, is expected to play a minor role in a new government (although that role could certainly grow over time). What’s more, the creation of a new democracy should not be guided by fear about unsavory groups that might potentially become powerful.

Whatever its composition, a new government would be expected to do more than increase political participation. It isn’t just a lack of freedom the protesters have been denouncing; they also have been complaining about bare dinner tables. The question is whether a new government would seek to combat poverty by expanding subsidies and public sector employment or by encouraging entrepreneurship. Under Mubarak, Egypt adopted market reforms.

A policy of the Mubarak regime that is likely ― but not guaranteed ― to survive the transition is Egypt’s intimate relationship with the United States. The army, which is a much respected and highly influential institution, values the relationship with the U.S. (and the military aid that accompanies it), and there are strong cultural, educational and economic ties between the two countries built over many years. Anti-Americanism has been a minor theme in the protests, and it mostly reflected outrage over the slowness of the United States to dissociate itself from Mubarak.

Then there are Egypt’s relations with Israel. Although the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed in 1979 has never been particularly popular on the Egyptian street, there is little evidence that the army objects to it or to the “cold peace” it produced. Some members of a new government might take a more confrontational attitude toward Israel or favor closer ties with Iran or Syria. But repudiation of peace with Israel, which has benefited Egypt in many ways, seems unlikely.

As with any revolution, observers should be modest about predicting the course of events in Egypt. But amid the change, there may be considerable continuity.

(Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3)
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