The protestors have gone home and the world’s attention has turned to Libya, but the future of the most populous and influential Arab country remains perhaps the most important issue affecting American interests in the Middle East other than Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The decision to abandon Hosni Mubarak without knowing who would take power in his place has created uncertainty and unease throughout the region. Though no one can predict at this point what Egypt will look like in the days and weeks to come, it is possible to envision three scenarios that all pose potential problems for American policy.
SCENARIO #1: The rosy scenario is that Egypt will become a democracy. There are many reasons to be skeptical of this outcome, including the unwieldiness of trying to create democratic institutions in a nation of 80 million people where none exist, the lack of a history of democracy in the region and the reluctance of existing power brokers to give up their hold on power.
Still, it is at least conceivable that the calls for elections will bring to power leaders who will adopt democratic principles. They may decide that they wish to remain allied with America. If they maintain the current regional policy, nothing much would change, but if they decide to support other democratic movements, Egypt could clash with the Gulf autocracies and force us to choose between our principles and the suppliers of our oil.
Elections could also bring to power leaders who do not like the United States, who are angry at our failure to support democracy in the past. They may also decide to put to a vote whether to retain the peace treaty with Israel, one of the centerpieces of U.S. foreign policy. Given that Mubarak did nothing to encourage the public to see Israel as a friend, Egyptians may decide to return to the belligerent posture they had for decades and ally with those still at war with Israel, such as Syria. A hint of the attitude of the young democrats came in one of the first pronouncements of the new Youth Party, which called for the cutoff of Egyptian gas supplies to Israel.
SCENARIO #2: A second scenario with similar good news, bad news possibilities is that the military controls the government. Who, after all the protests, is actually in charge now? It is possible that elections will be held and a Turkish-style government is formed, which depends on the support of the generals. The posture toward the United States then will be based on whether the generals believe it is in their interest to maintain the current alliance. One incentive is that we have been giving them all the tanks and planes they want and are likely to continue to do so as long as they adopt some democratic reforms and retain their current regional policy.
The military could shift policy, however, after seeing how President Obama abandoned Mubarak. They could respond to popular antagonism toward Israel and cancel the peace treaty and support Hamas and other terrorist groups. Israel would then have to invest massive resources to defend its southern border. With Israel nearly surrounded by hostile forces the prospects for a wider Mideast war would be heightened and the prospects for peace diminished. The U.S. would likely stop arming Egypt, which would cause them to turn to the Chinese and Russians to satisfy their arms requests.
SCENARIO #3: The nightmare scenario is that the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power. As the strongest and most organized party in Egypt, it is possible it could win an election. This group, however, believes in one man (no women), one vote, one time. They hope to impose an Iranian-style theocracy on Egypt that would enslave rather than free the people. The Brotherhood calls for the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel and with all the negative ramifications mentioned above. The group is an ally of terrorists and seeks to spread Islam beyond its borders. Under the Brotherhood, Egypt would likely become militantly anti-American and also threaten the conservative regimes in the Gulf.
The scariest aspect of these scenarios is the United States has limited ability to influence which one will emerge. Having endorsed democracy in Egypt, it will be hard for the administration to support anything short of free elections. The question is whether we want to risk our Middle East policy on perhaps the least likely scenario coming to pass, the emergence of a Jeffersonian democracy? To the extent we can, the best option is to work closely with the military rulers now in power to encourage them to maintain the current foreign policy and to try to build up alternative parties to the Islamists in the hope they will win a future election. Simultaneously, we should be preparing for the worst case scenarios.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book is "The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East" (HarperCollins Publishers).