Egyptian Uprising

January 30, 2011

Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs, examines protests in Cairo and their implications for change in the Arab world.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Cairo in the past week, many galvanized by the popular revolt in Tunisia earlier this month that unseated longtime ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Will the demonstrations be effective in removing Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, a strongman who has held power for 30 years? And what will be the impact of these popular uprisings on other Arab states?

To answer these questions, George Washington Today turned to Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs.

Q: Are we seeing something unprecedented in the Arab world with the level of protests in Tunisia and Egypt?

A: What is occurring is extremely unusual. Protests are certainly not unprecedented—low-level protests have increased over the past few years. And widespread protests are not unknown either. In Egypt, there was a popular uprising against British control in 1919; there were nationwide disturbances in 1977 and 1983. And there were other upsurges in urban protest in the late 1940s and the late 1960s.

But for two Arab regimes to fall to such popular uprisings—and the Egyptian regime is likely to fall or at least be significantly changed—is unprecedented.

Q: Mubarak has been a longtime ally of the U.S. How should the Obama administration respond to the protests in Egypt?

A: On a day-to-day basis, I think they have been playing things fairly well. The protests are almost exclusively about domestic issues; we are not at the center of the story here. A clear signal from the U.S. that we will support the regime no matter what it does—and its methods can be quite brutal—would not only be sharply at variance with American values; it would also be seen as cynical and even barbaric throughout the region.

But there is no disguising the fact that our regional policy is now in a shambles. Every president since Richard Nixon has relied on a close security and diplomatic relationship with an Egyptian regime that is now crumbling.

Q: How repressive has the Mubarak regime been? How does it compare to other Arab nations?

A: It has allowed a freer press and much freer intellectual life. I first went to Egypt in 1983; the Egypt of 2011 is a completely different place in terms of political atmosphere. People are more interested in politics, a wider range of views is presented and debated, and there are more places to talk politics.

But things stop at talk—and here there has been a marked regression in the past few years. Organized political opposition is greeted with a mixture of carrots and sticks to keep it off balance and to detach any leadership from its constituency. The sticks have been used more in the past few years, especially on Islamists.

There are more authoritarian Arab states, like Syria or Tunisia until earlier this month, but also more open ones.

Q: How likely is it that Mubarak will have to step down?

A: I would be very surprised if he is president at the end of this year. His term expires later this year, and he had not made clear whether he would seek a new one. Indications were tilting in the direction of his continuing, but there were no definite signs. Now the question has become whether he can hold on until then. I would think a quick transition to a post-Mubarak era would be very good for Egypt. But he does not seem inclined to go willingly.

Egyptian institutions are very strong, but they are all controlled by the presidency. If the protests continue, it may be that some of those institutions, especially the army, will step in and encourage Mubarak to step down. But they are not well structured to operate independently of his will.

Q: Are other nations in the Arab world ripe for similar pro-democracy protests and movements?

A: In most Arab states, it is axiomatic that the regime is oppressive and undemocratic. But effective movements to change things have been successfully deflected or defeated. There are some positive developments in a few places (like Kuwait, where the parliament plays a strong role). But events in Tunisia and Egypt may make change seem more within reach.

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