[Viewpoint] Egyptian stability after Mubarak

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[Viewpoint] Egyptian stability after Mubarak

For many Koreans, the tumultuous events unfolding in Egypt may evoke the June 1987 street demonstrations against Chun Doo-hwan in support of free elections. However, unlike those who protested against Chun’s military dictatorship, those now demonstrating in Cairo may, like the middle-class demonstrators against the Iranian Shah in 1979, come to rue the day.

While Western and Arab news media toast the demise of Hosni Mubarak’s rule over Egypt, the political future of the country remains disturbingly unclear, as do the prospects for maintaining regional stability in the Middle East.

As in Korea in the summer of 1987, the Egyptian opposition is composed of various movements with diverse ideologies and agendas that for the moment are united in their demand for Mubarak’s unconditional and immediate resignation, to be followed by free elections.

Conspicuous among these movements is the Muslim Brotherhood - a transnational religious organization with branches all over the Middle East. Though in recent years this organization has ostensibly embraced democratic ideals, it holds that such ideals should be subordinated to Islamic law. Moreover, for more than three decades it has been highly critical of the Israeli-Egyptian 1979 peace treaty. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, a strong and influential stratum - composed of military, police and security officers, and their families and relatives - has much to lose if anti-Mubarak forces, including radical Islamic elements, take control of the country.

Mubarak’s decision to dismiss his government and appoint a nonmember of the ruling party - the powerful chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman - to the post of vice president, and his pledge not to run in the upcoming September presidential election, were plausibly made to buy more time if not for Mubarak, then at least for Suleiman to minimize the prospective damage to this stratum’s interests during the process of transition to democracy.

When Suleiman, with the assistance of the armed forces and as a result of negotiations with opposition leaders, succeeds in restoring peace and security to the streets of Cairo, he will have to face perhaps an even greater challenge: the September presidential election, which under the current circumstances may be moved up.

If Suleiman and his political partners fail to distance themselves from the old ways of the Mubarak regime, to form an alliance with moderate elements within the opposition, and to invoke a spirit of change in the hearts of the people, Egypt might soon find itself governed by a democratically elected administration either controlled or supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s an ominous scenario not only for Egypt but also for the United States, Europe and their allies in the Middle East.

History has shown that in the Middle East, democratic elections do not necessarily result in democracies.

In Iran, democratic procedures in the spring and winter of 1979 replaced a monarchial dictatorship with a religious one. Not far from Cairo, the January 2006 U.S.-supported elections to the Palestinian legislature that ended with a Hamas victory paved the way for that organization’s brutal takeover of the Gaza strip in 2007.

Since then Hamas has violently suppressed any opposition to its rule while seeking to undercut the relatively peaceful coexistence and dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

An Egyptian government dependent on the Muslim Brotherhood’s support could end Hamas’ political isolation and territorial encirclement, enabling arms and ammunition to flow freely into Gaza.

Moreover, how would a new regime in Cairo under the influence of radical Muslim ideology behave in the event of a large-scale military clash between Israeli and Hamas forces? Would it observe, or rather choose to violate, Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel?

To prevent Egypt from facing such predicaments, and for the sake of their allied regimes in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, themselves continuously challenged by radical Islam, the United States and Europe must do their utmost to assist Suleiman in rehabilitating Egypt’s economy, correcting economic disparities and regaining the hearts of the people.

Concretely, the West must give Suleiman ample time to form a coalition that does not merely serve as an alternative to the Mubarak regime, but also maintains Egypt’s role as a moderating force in the Arab world - a coalition that would not turn its back on the West and on the peace process in the region at the first opportunity it gets.

Moreover, a genuine attempt to achieve sustainable democracy in Egypt will require a brazen and perhaps unpopular American and European resolve to support any interim government’s decision to ban radical anti-democratic forces from participating in popular elections, or, if necessary, to goad it into making such a decision.

*The writer is a Korea Foundation research fellow and a PhD candidate in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge.

By Niv Farago
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