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Q&A on Egypt's Post-Mubarak Future http://www.foreignaffairs.


February 10, 2011


Q&A on Egypt's Post-Mubarak Future

Steven A. Cook
STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council
on Foreign Relations. His book on Egyptian politics will be published in the fall by Oxford
University Press.

In "The U.S.-Egyptian Breakup [1]," CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Steven
A. Cook argues that the decades-long relationship between Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and the
United States ran like "a live wire" through Egypt's popular opposition movement. As such,
any new Egyptian government in Cairo is sure to have a more distant and perhaps more
fraught relationship with Washington. With the Mubarak era reaching a dramatic end last
week, what comes next for the Egyptian people -- and for their country's ties with the
United States?

George Sanderson: With attention now shifting to Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere, what
crucial, unanswered questions are in danger of being ignored in Egypt? In other words,
Hosni Mubarak may be gone, but how much have the protesters actually achieved?

Steven A. Cook: That's a very good question. Egyptians and foreign observers have taken
to calling recent events in Egypt a "revolution," but technically speaking it isn't -- at least
not yet. Mubarak is gone, but his military remains in charge of the country, the proposed
constitutional changes are limited, and much of the security apparatus and even the
once-ruling National Democratic Party remain strong (at least outside of Cairo and

Now, the constitutional committee has sought to go beyond the five constitutional
amendments and the deletion of one article to which the military is (and Mubarak was)
committed. The committee has now put eight amendments on the table, including an
explicit reference to writing a new constitution.

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It's important to remember that transitions to democracy are fraught and that revolutions
rarely end the way that the people on the barricades hoped they would.

Samuel Levy: Does the transitional council in Egypt appear committed to achieving
genuine reform, or is it merely hoping to quietly hold on to power until the world's gaze
shifts elsewhere?

Steven A. Cook: There is reason to be wary of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
First, all these guys are Mubarak's officers. He promoted them and they were loyal to him
-- to a fault.

Second, the armed forces are organically connected to the political order through a variety
of institutions, but most important, through the presidency. The commanders are the
inheritors of the Free Officers who founded the political system, and they are among its
primary beneficiaries.

Third, the military has vast economic interests that the political system helped make
possible. If you have a fundamental change from an authoritarian order to a more
democratic, open system, it seems hard to imagine how the military can hold on to its
various business ventures, which so far have been shielded from public view.

James Chute: Can Egypt, a culture that has long lived under autocratic or monarchic rule,
accept democracy, believe in it, or even trust it? Democracy is self-rule that requires
continual effort to be successful. What sort of historical or cultural resources can Egypt
draw on to sustain its sudden transition to democracy?

Steven A. Cook: Yes, of course. It was clear even before Egyptians rose up against
Mubarak in January that they wanted to live in a democracy. Egyptians have a history of
proto-democratic institutions. Beginning in the 1920s, Egypt had a constitution and a
parliament. It wasn't a Jeffersonian democracy, to be sure -- parliament was often
suspended, the ideological and personal battles among politicians weren't pretty, and the
British remained the arbiter of most issues. But there is something for Egypt to fall back on,
unlike many of its neighbors.

Furthermore, if you take a close look at the Egyptian constitution, there are some aspects
of it that are quite liberal. The Free Officers actually oversaw the writing of a fairly liberal
constitution, but they ignored it. That constitution is the subject of an Arabic-language book
by Salah Eissa titled The Constitution in a Garbage Can.

Jeff: Talk a bit about some of the causes of the protests: Was the El Dabaa nuclear reactor
or the May 2010 treaty on the equitable sharing of the Nile waters a factor in the uprising?
What about revelations from WikiLeaks?

Steven A. Cook: I don't believe that either of these factors directly contributed to the
uprising. To be sure, Egyptians were dismayed that some of the countries that are part of

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the Nile Basin Initiative agreed to change the terms of Nile water-sharing over Egyptian
objections -- a sign of Egypt's weakness under Mubarak -- but there were other much more
important factors. Scholars will look back and identify economic grievances, police brutality,
electoral fraud, and the arrogance of the regime, but I don't believe these factors caused
the uprising. After all, these problems clearly existed well before January.

In my forthcoming book on Egypt, The Struggle for Egypt, I identify coercion as the primary
cause of the uprising. To the extent that Mubarak relied on force or the threat of force to
maintain political control, he was at great risk of actually losing control because coercion is
risky and expensive. Once the fear factor melts away, it almost always leads to an

Dennis McMahon: Have any signs surfaced of what sorts of guarantees for the rights of
Christians will exist in the new Egypt?

Steven A. Cook: It's unclear, but in the post-revolutionary glow, there is a lot of Christian-
Muslim solidarity. Once more, there are suspicions that Mubarak and the people around
him, notably the former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, stirred up Christian-Muslim tension
as a means to maintain control of the population. As long as Christians feared the Muslim
majority, they would support the authoritarianism of the regime, fearing what might happen
to them in a different political environment.

Wolfram Rutherford: Do you believe that the military leadership will fulfill their
commitment to the democratic transition? Moreover, what role will the troops play after the
establishment of democracy in Egypt?

Rahman: Do you think the Egyptian military is going to play a role similar to that of the
military in Turkey? Can we compare, for example, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey or Juan Perón in Argentina?

Steven A. Cook: No. Models are interesting for trying to learn broad lessons, but
sometimes they obscure more than they reveal. Turkey began a transition to democracy
despite the military, not because of the armed forces.

Turkey began a transition to democracy only between 2002 and 2005, when it undertook
thoroughgoing reforms in order to meet the Europe Union's requirements (known as the
Copenhagen criteria) to begin EU membership negotiations. The military opposed these
changes, but because the Justice and Development Party led a broad coalition of pious
Turks, big business, Kurds, and average citizens who looked forward to the political and
economic benefits of EU membership, the military was constrained from acting to stymie
the reforms. Militaries always need civilian support to intervene in politics, and with
approximately 70 percent of the Turkish public backing the EU process, the officers would
have undermined their cherished standing among Turks had they intervened to subvert the

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I don't know enough about Argentina or Indonesia (the model currently in vogue for Egypt),
but I know Egypt, and it is going to develop according to its own history, politics, and social

John Ragheb: How would you describe the young leaders in the military, such as Sami
Anan and his entourage? Will they be different from the old guard?

Steven A. Cook: Lieutenant General Enan and the other "younger" senior leaders of the
military are not very well known. Enan has a reputation for being smart and, some say,
corrupt. He came to Mubarak's attention after the 1997 Luxor massacre, when his forces
chased down the perpetrators of that attack. Like Enan, the other members of the Supreme
Council are all Mubarak men. There was a rumor that some of them -- specifically, Air
Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, the country's air force commander -- were
starting to like the exercise of power. There is no way of knowing whether this is true or
not, but it runs against the grain of the Egyptian officer corps' socialization over the last
nearly 30 years. The military's narrative has been that the officers went back to the
barracks after the 1967 defeat and stayed there to prepare for a showdown with Israel. The
crossing of the Suez Canal -- Egypt's greatest military achievement -- was made possible
by focusing on soldiering, not politics, thereby vindicating the return to the barracks after

Miguel: With the new Egyptian government likely to become more ambiguous toward the
United States and its onetime Middle Eastern allies, who will Cairo turn to as primary global
allies? Turkey? Russia?

Steven A. Cook: It is certainly likely that a new Egyptian government, whatever its
character, is not going to pursue tight strategic alignment with the United States. There was
not an outpouring of anti-Americanism during the protests, but Egyptians are mistrustful of
the United States. After all, Washington -- under both Republican and Democratic
administrations -- enabled Mubarak's regime. As a result, there will be political pressure to
distance Cairo from Washington.

Christopher Patterson: Could there be a long-term advantage to Egypt's military

adopting a more accountable civilian government? Whereas neighboring governments rely
on revenue generated from oil and gas to build up military infrastructure, an accountable
democratic government (one not antagonistic to Israel) could in theory access cheaper
funds in international debt markets for both domestic and security infrastructure.

Steven A. Cook: In theory, yes, but in reality it is unlikely. The military is going to be
concerned that its interests are being taken into account. Under Mubarak, the officers could
rest assured that one of their own would deliver weapons and money, as well as ensure the
military's central place in Egypt's nationalist pantheon. As a result, the military was able to
take a low political profile. Under a civilian government, the military may very well
demonstrate more autonomy as it seeks to protect its assets and interests.

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Bob Boswell: What sort of relationship does today's Muslim Brotherhood have to the
group that was formed in the 1920s and collaborated with Hitler in an attempt to oust the
British from Egypt? And what sort of vision for sharia law do they have for Egypt?

Steven A. Cook: Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Ismailia in late
1927. There has been much misreporting about its relationship to fascism and Nazi
Germany. The Brotherhood is/was not a fascist political movement. Like many Egyptian
nationalist groups during World War II, members of the Brotherhood supported the German
war effort because of Great Britain's long occupation of Egypt. This includes Anwar
al-Sadat, who wanted to raise an Egyptian contingent to fight with Erwin Rommel's Afrika
Korps to oust the British. The Egyptian chief of staff sought to assist a pro-German coup in
Iraq, but the plot was discovered. In the 1950s, when rumors abounded that Hitler was
alive, Sadat penned a fawning letter to the Nazi leader in the Egyptian magazine

There is much debate about the Brotherhood's intention. The organization has certainly
adopted the discourse of reform and democratic political change. Its legislators in the last
few parliaments have acted like responsible members of the People's Assembly. This has
led some observers to conclude that the Brotherhood had evolved into a group that could
be a source for modernization, pluralism, and eventually, democratic politics. I'm not
entirely sure. Although I recognize that the Brotherhood has evolved, there are different
views represented within the organization, and it is a significant part of the Egyptian
political landscape, it has never repudiated its ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state
under sharia.

The group's notional political party platform of 2007 raised eyebrows with a number of
demonstrably illiberal provisions, including the prohibition of women and Christians serving
as head of state and the establishment of a sort of advisory council that would screen
legislation to ensure it conformed to Islamic law. It's important to note that the platform
was just a draft and it was deeply controversial within the Brotherhood.

Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see. At this point, answering what the Brotherhood will
and will not do is mere conjecture.

Jaberry: Why should there be a fundamental change in the relationship between the United
States and Egypt after Mubarak's ouster? The military has been the main political power in
Egypt since Gamal Abdel al-Nasser took over -- so no big change there. Meanwhile, the
opposition is disorganized and ideologically heterogeneous, and Washington has a big
presence in terms of money.

Steven A. Cook: Even with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in control -- an
ostensibly temporary condition -- it is going to be hard to maintain the same type of
U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship that prevailed for the better part of the last three decades.
To be sure, the generals understand that the Egyptian people's rebellion against Mubarak

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was about the government's brutality, indifference to the vast majority of Egyptians, and
corruption. They should also understand that many Egyptians mistrust the United States for
Washington's support for Mubarak. They also believe that the strategic relationship warped
Egypt's foreign policy. Under these circumstances, it will be hard to get back to business as

Dylan McDonnell: Given Egypt's complex relationship with the United States, Israel, the
Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, what do you see as Egypt's future role
in the Middle East peace process?

Steven A. Cook: Egypt's foreign policy is likely to change in a way that is more
independent of the United States and Israel. This has set off alarm bells within Israel and
raised concern in Washington, but there is little anyone can do about it. In a more open
political environment -- if that is, indeed, what is happening -- the Egyptians will be less
inclined to maintain a blockade of Gaza (something profoundly unpopular in Egypt) or
remain quiescent the next time Israel makes an incursion into Gaza, the West Bank, or

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