UPDATE: One day after vowing to serve until September, Hosni Mubarak resigned the Egyptian presidency on Friday. His decision was announced by Vice President Omar Suleiman. Protesters greeted the news with noisy celebration, cheering and waving flags in Cairo’s Tahrir square. Earlier in the day, Mubarak fled Cairo.
Mubarak’s galling decision not to step down could create a dangerous stalemate, allowing extremists like al Qaeda to swoop in and gain support, writes former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. Plus, full coverage of Egypt’s protests.
President Hosni Mubarak was undoubtedly encouraged to cling to power, with his like-minded Vice president Omar Suleiman, by the other autocrats in the Arab world. The Saudis were especially keen got them to keep control. So was Mubarek's old nemesis Muammar Qaddafi, who fears he could be next. The Israelis fear the revolution could yet turn into a replay of the Iranian revollution of 1979. Hamas' victory in Gaza and the takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah this winter—through the more-or- less legal political system—has reinforced these fears.
But Egypt today is not Iran yesterday or today. There is no Ayatollah Khomeini or league of extreme Islamic clerics leading this opposition. Its leadership so far has been young, educated and broad-based, with many secular figures. It seeks the rule of law and accountability, not the rule of a supreme leader or a divinely-chosen Imam. Egyptian Sunni Islam is not controlled by a clerical establishment the way that Iranian Shia Islam is. Egyptians know their country desperately needs more Western tourists, not isolation from the west.
The opposition does include the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Egyptian Brotherhood eschewed violence years ago and has already said it will not run a candidate for president if Egypt holds new elections. It is very close to Hamas and demands the lifting of the siege of Gaza, but it also knows Egyptians do not want more wars with Israel. The Brotherhood is the best-organized Egyptian party but it does not have a monopoly on street support. The violence we have seen in Egypt so far has come from Mubarak and Suleiman and their thugs, not the Islamists.
Those who have been bystanders so far to a revolution that they had nothing to do with, like al Qaeda, will try to steal the direction of events if the stalemate goes on indefinitely.
Trying to hold back history and peaceful change may radicalize the situation. Those who have been bystanders so far to a revolution that they had nothing to do with, like al Qaeda, will try to steal the direction of events if the stalemate goes on indefinitely. Terror—either at home in Egypt or abroad—is a growing danger. Anger in the streets toward Mubarak may get more explosive. More extreme voices in the Brotherhood will gain traction.
The army still has a critical role to play. Its commander, Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, is cut from the same cloth as the president and vice president, but his officer corps must now be asking the key question: are Mubarak and his team an asset or a liability to their future? The captains and majors in the streets also must wonder whether their men will fire on demonstrators or join them if push comes to shove.
There is still time for cool heads to prevail in Egypt. The United States can play a role with the army leadership in urging calm and walking away from the brink. The opposition has now spread to the labor movement, which will bring the economy to a standstill—so it does not need to turn to violence. Bigger and angrier demonstrations are likely but they can hopefully remain peaceful. The stakes are huge for Egypt, the region and America and it is getting more dangerous as the old guard tries to hang on.
Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama's request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.