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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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February 13, 2011

What next for Egypt after Mubarak?

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

A new chapter in the history of the Middle East opened on February 11, 2011 when 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak ended in the face of unprecedented mass uprising against his brutal pro-US regime. The collapse in Egypt took just 18 days of bold protest, inspired by the overthrow of  Tunisia’s long-standing strongman, President Zein Al Abidin,  just weeks before. Ironically, the day Mubarak was toppled from power came precisely 32 years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which shook the world in its day and still reverberates.

The forced exit of Mubarak from the presidential palace has sent shock waves to the Arab rulers. From the oil-rich Persian Gulf states in the east to Morocco in the west, pro-U.S. regimes could not help but worry they could see a similar upheaval. If it could happen in only three weeks in Egypt, where Mubarak's lock on power appeared unshakable, it could happen anywhere. Only a month earlier, Tunisia's president Zein Al Abidin was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia in the face of protests.

The success of 'people power' in Egypt is far more significant for Arabs everywhere than its success in Tunisia. Egypt, with 80 million population, is the biggest and most powerful Arab state. The Egyptian example has already electrified public opinion throughout the region where, like Egypt, autocracy, corruption, unemployment, and anti-Israel sentiments prevail.

The victory of the Egyptian people will no doubt stir demands from the region to change their pro-West leadership and change in the US policies.  There are pro-US regimes in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states which are likely to be threatened by popular uprisings.

Not surprisingly, several of the region's rulers have made pre-emptive gestures of democratic reform to avert their own protest movements.

Egypt is now under military rule

However, the anti-dictatorial moment is only the first phase of a prolonged struggle toward definitive emancipation of Egypt as the country is now taken over by the army that firmly backed Mubarak for three decades.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Sunday dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution. The last parliamentary elections in November and December were marked by allegations of fraud by the ruling party, which was accused of virtually shutting out the opposition. Throughout his rule, Mubarak ensured control through rigged elections, a constitution his regime wrote, a ruling party that monopolized the levers of state, and a hated police force accused of widespread torture.

The military council said parliamentary and presidential elections will be held, but did not set a timetable. It said it will run the country for six months or until elections can be held. The council also formed a committee to introduce constitutional changes and set rules for a popular referendum to endorse the amendments. The council also asserted the right to proclaim laws.

Egypt is now under military rule. After 18 days of massive demonstrations, Omar Suleiman, the vice-president and former intelligence chief, announced on February 11 that Mubarak has "charged the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to administer Egypt's affairs". That means the terms and timing of Egypt's transition to democracy will be decided by generals: Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's defense minister; Lieutenant-General Sami Hafiz Enan, the chief of the armed forces; Air Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, the air force chief; Lieutenant General Abd El Aziz Seif-Eldeen; commander of The Egyptian Air Defence Forces; and Naval Forces Commander in Chief, Vice Admiral Mohab Mohammed Hussein Mamish. Another key member is General Omar Suleiman

Field Marshal Tantawi, 75, who has in the past been reviled by his critics as "Mubarak's poodle," heads the six-member ruling military council. General Omar Suleiman, who was appointed by Mubarak as Vice President on January 28, was widely expected to success him but he resigned as Vice President and became a key member of the ruling military council. Omar Suleiman, widely dubbed by protesters "Sheikh al-Torture", after his performance tossing at least 30,000 people in jail as suspected jihadis, accepting CIA renditions, and torturing the rendered. He is a long-standing favorite of Israel's who spoke daily to the Tel Aviv government via a secret "hotline" to Cairo, according to leaked documents.”

Mubarak has left but his so-called state security apparatus with 325,000 Central Security Forces and the 60,000 National Guard, directly under the Interior Ministry, remain intact. Top Generals of the 468,500-strong army have buttressed Mubarak for 30 years while civilian security forces and police were used to brutally suppress anti-government elements.

Roger Hardy, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC, believes that President Mubarak's resignation and his departure from Cairo do not mean that the Egyptian crisis is moving towards an early resolution. On the contrary, Mubarak has simply dumped his dilemmas into the lap of the military top brass.

Egyptians welcomed military rule with a massive display of joy. But many questions remain about what comes next — and there are strong doubts about whether military rule will lead to the demonstrators' ultimate goal: a credible transition to democracy.

Robert Springborg, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, suspects that a real constitutional overhaul is not on the military's agenda. The current document heavily centralizes power in a strong president, something he believes top commanders are loath to change.

Army has been enriched by their control over very lucrative companies in a wide range of fields. Egyptian military officers own a share in just every industry in the country, from road construction to car assembly to tourism. This could lead to a serious clash with protesters who've been calling for an end to corruption and for Mubarak to be put on trial.

Army is not likely to support any civilian ‘coalition’ that calls into question their economic privileges and power to set the political parameters of any electoral system. "To investigate the transgressions of the regime is to take it directly into the military economy," says Springborg. Military leaders have "less than zero interest in having an investigation of that."

Peace Treaty with Israel

One day after Mubarak’s departure, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces underlined Egypt's "commitment to all its international treaties," reassurance that it continues to honor the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

For the past 30-plus years, Egypt has been among those despotic regimes supported by the U.S. in return for turning its back on Palestinians. The U.S. kept Mubarak in power—it gave his regime $1.5 billion in aid last year—mainly because he supported America’s pro-Israel policies, especially by helping Israel maintain its stranglehold on Gaza.

For Israelis, Mubarak has been absolutely crucial as he adhered to the peace treaty with Israel despite wars and uprisings. Egypt joined Israel in blockading the Gaza Strip in a bid to undermine its elected Hamas government.

According to Daniel Levy, who directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, Mubarak's Egypt was a linchpin for Israel's ability to pursue a hard-line regional policy with near impunity. When Israel needed the Arab world to turn a blind eye to entrenched occupation and settlements or harsh military adventurism then it would be Hosni Mubarak running cover and diluting any Arab response.

For years that strategy paid off for the now-deposed Egyptian leader -- it made Mubarak relevant, even indispensable for successive U.S. governments desperately trying to balance their indulgence for outlandish Israeli behavior with a desire to retain some semblance of credibility in the Arab world, Levy said adding: “The latter of course never happened, but the America was too busy listening to the unelected leaders rather than to their publics.”

Levy believes that Post-transition Egypt is unlikely to continue playing this game. “And without Mubarak's enthusiastic endorsement, the process itself is likely to further unravel. It is hard to imagine other Arab states leaping into this breach, or the Palestinians accepting 20 more years of peace-process humiliation, or indeed Syria adopting the Egyptian model and signing a stand-alone peace agreement with Israel. Israel's strategic environment is about to change.

Egypt -  A textbook police state

US foreign policy has a long history of installing, financing, arming and backing dictatorial regimes which support its imperial policies and interests as long as they retain control over their people. US-backed Arab leaders are given a license to rule they deem appropriate, as long as they don’t threaten Israel’s security or other American interests in the region. In return, they are allowed to abuse human rights and deny their people economic and political rights. With America’s sanction, and under the banner of fighting “Islamic fundamentalism”, they can crush any opposition that arises.

As Stephen Lendman said, Mubarak's Egypt, in fact, "is a textbook police state. For 30 years, anger and frustration brewed among his subjects, bottled up and sealed with fear." Egypt's brutal police enforced hardline control, targeting activists, dissidents, opposition forces, and anyone perceived threatening as well as ordinary citizens suspected of crimes or looking suspicious. In June 2010, a young man, Khaled Said, was beaten to death for not showing his identity card after entering an Alexandria Internet cafe. Torture and disappearances were also commonplace as were sham elections.

A 2010 WikiLeaks released cable said the Egyptian "Interior Ministry uses (state security) to monitor and sometimes infiltrate the political opposition and civil society, and to suppress political opposition through arrests, harassment and intimidation."   Like many other Arab leaders, Mubarak also claimed threatening Islamic extremism to justify harsh repression and extract more Western aid.

Since the assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat in 1981, Egypt has officially been in a continuous   state of emergency which under a 1958 law permitted Mubarak to oversee measures unnervingly similar to the USA Patriot Act -- indefinite detention; torture; secret courts; special authority for police interventions; complete absence of privacy; and so on, ad nauseum. The state of emergency remains in force as the new Supreme Council of the Armed Forces says it will be lifted when the "current situation has ended".

The Egyptian and Tunisian people have revolted against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion. To borrow author James Petras, when popular upheavals challenged these US backed dictatorships, and a social as well as political revolution appeared likely to succeed, Washington responded with a three track policy: publically criticizing the human rights violations and advocating democratic reforms; privately signaling continued support to the ruler; and thirdly, seeking an elite alternative which could substitute for the incumbent and preserve the state apparatus, the economic system and support US strategic imperial interests.

According to Stephen Kinzer even if democratic regimes in the Middle East are not fundamentalist, they will firmly oppose U.S. policy toward Israel. The intimate U.S.-Israel relationship guarantees that many Muslims around the world will continue to see the U.S. as an enabler of evil. Accepting that Arabs have the right to elect their own leaders means accepting the rise of governments that do not share America's pro-Israel militancy.   Also an independent Egyptian government responsive to the will of its people would certainly also reject Mubarak's close cooperation with Israel to maintain the blockade of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

At present, it is not clear how and when Egypt will move towards elections, and how fair they will be. There is also no certainty on what the likely results will be. It is a common perception that in any fair and free elections, Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political party in Egypt is likely to emerge as the largest single political block. From having just one MP out of 444 in Egypt's national assembly in 1995, the Brotherhood won 17 seats in 2000 and 88 in 2005. It was humbled in the 2010 elections because of election rigging -- one of the causes of the protests.

However, fears of the so-called Islamic revolutions everywhere are misplaced as most of the current dissent seems driven by nationalist rather than religious sentiment.   In Egypt and elsewhere, the religious groups are jumping on a bandwagon others have set in motion.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.