A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Now What Happens?

After Police Day in Cairo, and now after the day after, what next? Obviously Egypt drew a lot of attention as many of the same media correspondents who were in Tunis a week ago shifted to Cairo. But it's also clear that the government showed its harder side today, with the Interior Ministry banning all gatherings and breaking up assemblages. Yesterday was a holiday, today a work day, so turnouts were reduced. The next test will be Friday, since after Friday prayers is a traditional tie for ferment, since crowds are already assembled at mosques.

Marc Lynch today captures some of the nuances we're all wrestling with as we watch this evolve: long experience teaches us not to underestimate the durability of Arab autocrats, even as we recognize that something does seem to have changed: there's a new dynamic in play, and neither policy analysts nor, perhaps, Interior Ministries fully understand what it means, or how exportable it may be. Read Lynch's piece since I think I would echo most of it. Including the sense that something has changed, but also skepticism that it will be enough to replicate Tunisia. Egypt is much bigger, more critically important to the US, and also has more outlets for letting off steam (an independent if sometimes restricted press). But yesterday's demonstrations were by most accounts the biggest since the 1977 bread riots, at least, and the bread riots scared Anwar Sadat no end,

One element in Tunisia that is less likely to be replicated in Egypt is the role the Army played. The Egyptian Army stays out of politics largely because of the perks granted by the regime, but they are also the ultimate guarantors of the regime. They normally play no role in internal security, which is the domain of the Interior Miuistry. But it is hard to imagine the Egyptian Army, at least as currently officered, giving the final shove to a faltering regime, as apparently occurred in Tunisia, though the details are still obscure.

On the other hand, the real loser in all this may be "Jimmy." Gamal Mubarak has always been a tough sell, since he is about as charismatic as most professional bankers, and evokes little support outside of his own entrepreneurial class of newly enriched businessmen. The Army has been noticeably silent about the succession project. At times in the past, the elder Mubarak has talked about the necessity of military experience for a leader in Egypt. A threat to the regime from the streets could lead him to abandon the Gamal project and simply run for a sixth term, which many have always suspected he would do, After all, he'd only be 90 when the term expires.

But of course, the dynamic may hold some surprises. Nobody thought Ben Ali would go after 29 days of anger, until he did.

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