What Will Replace Mubarakism? Understanding the Egypt Crisis: Conference Call with Lee Smith

Lee Smith, author of the acclaimed book The Strong Horse: Power Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations briefed JINSA members on “Egypt after Mubarak” via conference call on February 16. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of the call.

What happened in Egypt was a preemptive military coup and not, as the popular media so often portrayed it, a social media revolution enabled by Facebook and Twitter. The same happened in Tunisia. Both were, in fact, military coups against military regimes undertaken by senior officers who had decided that those in power no longer represented their interests.

In Egypt, the presumptive heirs to President Hosni Mubarak are now out of the picture – his son Gamal and his former intelligence chief, Vice President Omar Suleiman. Field Marshal Tantawi, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is now firmly in control and ruling the country through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In Tunisia, it was not the protests that swept President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his cronies from power but, in fact, it was a revolt by senior Tunisian military officers who saw their retirement investments and pension plans drained by Ben Ali and his cronies’ staggering corruption.

It is important to remember that for the past 30 years Hosni Mubarak, himself a career officer who rose to be air force chief of staff, was the head of a military regime even though he chose to affect a suit and tie. In essence, Mubarak forgot that his was a military regime and his officers broke with him when he positioned his son, Gamal, to take over after him. In effect, Mubarak was attempting to shift the government from military rule to a family dynasty. The military held Gamal Mubarak – a Westernized technocrat who had not served in the armed forces – in contempt.

Field Marshal Tantawi’s initial promise to allow elections to go forth in September may be held up by the time necessary to draft and ratify a new constitution. Most recently, the Supreme Council announced that elections will be held ‘when they are ready.’ There danger in this is that the longer the senior officers are in charge, the more likely it is that a junior officer revolt is in the offing, just like in 1952 when Nasser and his colleagues overthrew the monarchy.

On the other hand, Egypt’s political landscape is not mature enough for elections as early as September. None of the obvious parties/candidates are likely to move the country in the direction that the United States would desire.

While there can be no doubt that there was an anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in the protests, it did not dominate the demonstrations. Driving the protests was the anger at what could be called “Mubarakism,” the new class of business and political elites who came to power in recent years. They rose on a monumental wave of corruption and rewarded themselves with privileges to such as degree that it spurred popular revolt. The big business-driven economic growth that led to their rise was made possible by Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. In fact, the central plank of Mubarakism is the peace treaty with Israel. It is not Israel component, though, that is the problem for Egyptians, it is the U.S. money that comes along with the treaty that is the problem.

The $1.3 billion per year in military aid that the U.S. provides to Egypt as part of the peace treaty with Israel as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic support goes far beyond simply feathering the retirement nests of the senior military elite, it is seen as underwriting the entirety of the corrupt system in place for 30 years. While it does give America some leverage it is also the source of a major problem within Egypt. Consequently, American policymakers need to be sensitive to Egyptian dissatisfaction with the peace treaty because it is likely to change.

The issue of the peace treaty plays out in both domestic politics and in regional dynamics. Today, the regional dynamic dominates over the intra-Arab dynamic. Iran and Turkey currently lead the regional dynamic. The unknown is whether Egypt’s new rulers will choose to compete if Iran challenges them, which it is likely to do. Specifically, the challenge will come over the peace treaty with Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood will be a problem over the long term. Right now, it is unclear what the Egyptian people want as far as the role of Islam in their daily lives. There are many ways for the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve power over time without having to win elections outright. The example of Hezbollah in Lebanon is telling. What is not well understood by outsiders is that the Muslim Brotherhood is an integral part of Egyptian modernity. Its influence historically is tremendous. Also cause for concern is the degree to which the Muslim Brotherhood has influence over the young officers in the Egyptian military. They are the most receptive to the Brotherhood’s message and best positioned to see senior officers reap the spoils of Mubarakism.