As protesters gather around Egypt in unprecedented numbers, their message is clearly getting through. Although the target of their anger, President Hosni Mubarak refuses to concede power and join former Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, in exile, it is looking more likely every day that he does not have much time left in power. The people are streaming into Tahrir Square in central Cairo as organizers hope to gather a million protestors both in the capital and in Alexandria, and the army has said they will not use any kind of force against peaceful demonstrators. Whether the demonstrations remain peaceful or the anger breaks out into violence, it is difficult to imagine that the stubborn Mubarak will not be removed from power in the coming days. If and when he is ousted from his 30 year platform, what will be the next step for the country? Who will slide into power? What will be the repercussions locally and internationally? These are questions of significant importance not only for Egypt, but for the entire Arab world, the entire Muslim world, Israel, America, and the West.
First, this ongoing revolution has been markedly free of any religious influence. The people who are protesting come from all walks of life and backgrounds. They are predominantly poor, but are Christian, Muslim, and otherwise. The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization outlawed under Mubarak’s regime, has become more active on the political side of the protests in recent days, but it remains a political and economic issue, rather than a religious one. Mubarak has always been backed by Western countries, including the U.S. who supply him with billions in aid annually. His position has long been viewed as a sort of bridge between the West and the Middle East, keeping relative peace between Israel and the Islamic nations that surround it. As the largest nation in the Arab world, Egypt’s influence on neighbours like Syria, Iran, and Lebanon has done a great deal in the past to keep regional tensions simmering, as opposed to allowing them to boil over. The future of regional relations hinges greatly on the outcome of the crisis. When this is all over and the people have gotten their wish, dethroning the corrupt Mubarak, the issue will be far from over.
The movement, much like in Tunisia, has been largely led by the youth. Students and young unemployed or underemployed people have been the fuel of this fire since the beginning. Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they seem to want the same things – freedom, opportunity, and basic human rights. They connected in the early days via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Since the internet has been blocked, communication has been mainly via cell phone. This is promising in terms of who the people would like to see take control after the current regime has fallen. It appears as though a hardline Islamist government comparable to that in Iran would be out of the question. The Muslim Brotherhood, with more than 30 of it’s leaders freed from prison after guards abandoned their posts, has been entering into political discussions and attempting to become part of an opposition coalition, but their message does not seem to be gaining much hold among the majority of protesters. However, in a situation as tense and chaotic as this, it is entirely possible that the emotions of enough people could be swayed in that direction as the long and winding process of transition unfolds.
If Egypt’s next government were run on Islamist policies, much would change, but it certainly would not be the answer to the issues at hand. Religious based governance does not work. Human rights are the first casualty under any religious regime. Women would be oppressed. Knowledge and enlightenment would be repressed. The gains in freedom of speech that have been made in the past weeks would undoubtedly be taken back to levels worse than under Mubarak. And what of the issue of regional politics? Israel would be losing it’s one and only regional support system. Without Egypt to hold them at bay, how would the Irans and Syrias deal with Israel’s continued presence in the region? How would a new Islamist regime deal with their Jewish neighbours? The people of Israel are watching this situation very carefully.
The best option for a positive future in Egypt and the Middle East seems to be Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohammed ElBaradei, who has returned to his country after a long absence. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who toured Iraq with Hans Blix and explicitly told the U.S. that Saddam Hussein posed no nuclear threat, is widely viewed as an Egyptian hero, and his return has galvanized the protest movement. In 2009, he left that post, with the intention of challenging Mubarak for the Presidency in this fall’s planned elections. It seems his campaign has been fast tracked. ElBaradei is supporting and even participating in the protests in Cairo. His platform is one of pro-democracy and social reform. As a respected seeker of peace, he would be a sort of middle ground between pro-Islamist and pro-Western Egyptians. He supports both Palestine and Israel’s rights to exist as nations, but unlike Mubarak, he intends to work fairly to help the two sides co-exist peacefully, meaning that he would attempt to ensure that Israel respects the borders and settlements agreed upon in the 1967 treaty between the two states. He would also push for the opening of Egypt’s borders with Gaza to relieve the overcrowded, under-supplied conditions faced by Gazans. Mubarak and his U.S. support system have been unwavering in their support for Israel and their condemnation of Palestine. ElBaradei and his peaceful, compromising ways would be a relief, not only to Palestinians, but in the long run, perhaps, to Israelis as well. Compromise has been one tactic largely absent in the ongoing conflict, and to have a powerful supporter of both nations could do a great deal to relieve tension in the long run.
Although Hosni Mubarak’s days seem to be numbered as President of Egypt, the issue is far from over. With millions gathering around the country, pushing for long needed change, it will come, but in what capacity is anyone’s guess. An Islamist government in Egypt would be a great boost to neighbouring leaders like Ahmedinejad of Iran, Gadaffi of Libya, and al-Bashir of Sudan. A boost to these leaders undoubtedly means a huge step back in the department of human rights, and an immense challenge to relations between the West and the Middle East. If the next President proved to be another puppet of the West, at best the status quo would remain in terms of regional politics. It could however flare into conflict between Egypt and it’s neighbours. It would seem that the best option for a peaceful future in Middle Eastern politics would be for ElBaradei to lead the way. His influence and connections in Western politics combined with his desire to compromise on the issue of Israel and Palestine would ensure that Egypt continues to receive aid from the West to ensure better everyday lives for Egyptians, and would be a great asset in the ongoing struggle for peace in the region. At this point, though, only time will tell, and the decision remains in the hands of the Egyptian people.