In History, a Template for Egypt's Future?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011 - 02:33 PM

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Oval Office of the White House September 1, 2010 in Washington, D.C. (Ron Sachs/Getty)

As night falls on the ninth day of the people's revolt in Egypt, the country's future isn't the only thing that is uncertain. It has yet to be seen whether Egypt is in the midst of a true revolution, or more of a coup d'etat. From Iran to Algeria, history provides a number of models that may be clues to what an Egypt without Hosni Mubarak could look like.

Though he has not yet been deposed, Mubarak's announcement that he will not run for another term as president has thrust Egypt into a period of chaotic transformation that some see as parallel to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. "The great question in front of us in Egypt is whether that will be replicated," says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. During the period between the Shah leaving Iran and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini taking power, Iran's "institutions changed, the ideology changed, [and] the ways of life changed."

Pipes says the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group which has been marginalized since 1954, is "savoring the moment." Should they take power in Egypt, Pipes says the world can expect an Iran-style Islamic revolution.

However, the circumstances in Iran in 1979 and Egypt today are fundamentally different. "I'm inclined to think it's more like a coup d'etat than a revolution," says Pipes, citing the critical role of the Army in Egypt's history. Egypt's last major coup came in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Army to overthrow King Farouk I. Nasser and his successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak "are all men of the military," Pipes reminded The Takeaway's John Hockenberry on the Wave of Change podcast. Egypt's Army may accept a new president, but it probably won't accept civilian rule.

Pipes believes the better historical analogy can be found in the Algerian Civil War of the early 1990s when some Islamist groups challenged the long-time military regime. "By some deft maneuvering, the old guard, the military and its allies retained power, and it remains in power until today, 20 years later," says Pipes. 

Either way, the situation in Egypt will continue to present major challenges for the United States and its interests in the region. Despite the tradition of the U.S. supporting democratic movements around the world, the reality, says Pipes, is that "we have a problem with the democratic forces in the Muslim world, which tend to be Islamist."

As Pipes sees it, when the U.S. is forced to support democratic movements, it comes down to a choice between supporting the military and supporting Islamists. "Adopt democracy as our goal, but slowly," says Pipes, criticizing the efforts of George W. Bush's administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only over decades, Pipes says, a civil society can develop, "which can lead to a favorable outcome for those countries and for ourselves."

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