Thomas R. Pickering ’53 has had a distinguished career spanning five decades as a U.S. diplomat, including as U.S. Ambassador to Israel and to Jordan. In this analysis—provided exclusively to the Bowdoin Daily Sun—Pickering offers his assessment of the turmoil in Egypt and the prospects for lasting change there and in the region.
The past ten days has brought remarkable change to the Middle East and particularly Egypt. It has been striking in its speed and scope. You have to go back to the 1973 Yom Kippur-Ramadan War to find anything like it.
What does it mean and where is it going are the central questions facing Egyptians, Arabs, Americans, Israelis and many others. This brief article attempts to fix on answers to these questions against the backdrop of a Middle East of great importance to this country and the world.
Since 1982, Egypt has been ruled by President Hosni Mubarak, his military friends and allies and a growing coterie of businessmen and others who have depended on him for position and wealth and in return supported him in his control of the country. Mubarak brought a sense of stability to the region through cooperation with Americans and a commitment to the peace with Israel which made him a key player on the international scene. All this was buttressed by a regime held in place by a strong police and intelligence operation, corruption and back scratching among the elite, and a move in the economic sphere to promote more top down than bottom up change, prosperity and even reform. The faults of the regime have now become the centerpiece of a mass popular effort on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez for far-reaching political change.
For Egyptians, this means a first opening to a new way of governing. Sunday morning’s (February 6th) announcement of a conversation between vice president and former Mubarak intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and the opposition, including representatives of the demonstrators in Liberation (Tahrir) Square and the Muslim Brotherhood, has opened the door to possible change. The fact that central issues were proposed, discussed and apparently agreed regarding a change in the constitution, the release of detainees, a relaxation of curbs on the media, and the repeal of oppressive laws regarding the police among other things, indicates how far and how fast the organized protests have had a salient influence.
Many big questions and issues remain.
Experts on Egyptian law and its constitution have pointed out that were Mubarak to leave office his successor would be the leader of Egypt’s parliament, an individual with a hard line reputation and views.
The opposition in the Square is insisting on the removal of Mubarak. For some it is an absolute condition precedent to undertaking negotiations over the future of the country. How that will be aligned with the fact that some “representatives” of the opposition have apparently started talks with Suleiman over the future of the government is not yet clear. The opposition in the Square continues to insist (February 7) that Mubarak must leave before any deals can be made with General Omar Suleiman.
In the meantime the international community is also in a confused state over this issue. Last week it appeared that President Obama was calling for Mubarak’s early departure. On February 6th there were indications that Secretary Clinton and European leaders meeting on the edges of the Munich Security Conference were taking a more nuanced view. One possibility would be for Mubarak to turn over all authority to Suleiman and retire to live in Sharm el Sheikh, a favorite of his at the south end of the Sinai Peninsula. The U.S. special presidential envoy and former Ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, told the Munich Security Conference that Mubarak should stay, possibly until September 2011 when he had promised to step down and agreed not to run again in the scheduled elections. His function, according to Wisner, should be to oversee a smooth transition to a new civilian government, perhaps using the elections now scheduled for the autumn. The U.S. Government immediately moved to separate itself from Wisner’s statement, made in his personal capacity following the termination of his recent mission to Egypt to deliver a message from President Obama to Mubarak, presumably about his stepping down in one fashion or another.
Experts on Egyptian law and its constitution have pointed out that were Mubarak to leave office his successor would be the leader of Egypt’s parliament, an individual with a hard line reputation and views. Should this happen, elections for a new president are required within 60 days. Should he otherwise remove himself from active fulfillment of his office, authority would be moved to Suleiman, his newly appointed vice president. Others have noted that the problem is further complicated by related issues which will have to be dealt with in the coming days. Mubarak has special decree powers. They could be transferred by him to Suleiman to facilitate governing during the transition and even to facilitate changes being requested by the opposition. Most authorities consider the electoral system will require a complete overhaul before really free and fair elections can be held. That may require a vote of the parliament, at the moment mainly Mubarak loyalists. Some combination of decrees and parliamentary legislation may at minimum be needed to set up a new electoral process for both a new parliament and perhaps then to move to amend or rewrite the constitution. As a result, the legal difficulties for future moves are complex and convoluted and will require sorting out and some time.
…the more the old is combined with the new, the more the departures from the old arrangements can and will be called into question.
Traditionally, such revolutionary changes can follow a number of courses. One is the use of the existing system to write new rules and changes. Another is the convening of a new representative authority de novo to start again clean as result of the massive failure of public confidence in the old arrangements. Some combination of the two is likely even though it should be recognized that the more the old is combined with the new, the more the departures from the old arrangements can and will be called into question. There is reason to believe that Wisner’s ideas are informed by the need to move the old system forward to effect the new changes the opposition and others are seeking.
A second major question for Egyptians is whether the military, and particularly Omar Suleiman as former military and with a close relationship with Mubarak, can pivot from this background to lead successfully a transition regime to agree upon and implement changes in Egypt’s governance sought by the opposition. So far the power of the street has in ten days moved this process far forward. And despite unhappiness with and uncertainties about Suleiman, he seems to be moving the process in a positive direction. The military has a strong reputation for loyalty to the state and is generally popular with the public.
Here the process may well be aided by the fact that the army, as opposed to the police and other forces, has been seen by the opposition protesters as friendly and unwilling to use force against them. Indeed, the army’s decision to declare against force was a major factor in Mubarak’s saying he would leave in September 2011. The army on its side has made clear that it is also bound to keep law and order, but so far is using persuasion and discussion as the primary methods for doing so. Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, minister of defense, visited Tahrir Square over the weekend with positive reactions. The process is inordinately aided by the fact that those now in protest have behaved with respect to the army, and indeed in many other particulars, in an exemplary fashion regarding law and order. This, in the face of serious Mubarak-inspired provocations by armed thugs at the end of last week. On February 6, a Coptic Christian mass was celebrated in Tahrir Square along with a wedding. It will be important to their future success in Egypt and with the world for the protesters to maintain this posture.
The protest shows a real capacity for good sense, maturity, an ability to marshal and use the new technology, and when it is cut off to fall back to the grapevine and word of mouth to succeed.
A third consideration for Egyptians has to do with leadership in the opposition protesters. The protest shows a real capacity for good sense, maturity, an ability to marshal and use the new technology, and when it is cut off to fall back to the grapevine and word of mouth to succeed. However, both on organization and leadership, the new opposition emerging through the protest is seriously challenged. In the past, they have been intimidated and suppressed by the regime. Some belong to previously banned parties. (The Muslim Brotherhood—Ikhwan al Muslimiin—is discussed below). Their need to be able to develop leadership and a personal face is obvious. Within the last 36 hours, Mohammed El Baradei, the former head of the international Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations, and a declared presidential contender for the September 2009 elections in Egypt, has been given some additional stature through apparent endorsements from the opposition in the street. He has credibility because he spent long years out of Mubarak’s Egypt, enjoys an international reputation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, under his lead, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. But he does not have a solid power base in the country because of his long absence from Egypt.
Another possible leader is former Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Amre Moussa. He visited Tahrir Square on Saturday, February 5th, with a positive reception from most but not all of those present. He is, like Suleiman, closely associated in the past with Mubarak but has an independent reputation in Egypt and the Arab world as a feisty fighter for Palestinian rights, a nuclear weapons free Middle East, and for a host of Arab causes.
The outside world and many Egyptians are watching closely the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in the protests. So far they were slow to move at the beginning, but have now worked hard to blend in with the main protests, been careful to avoid the use of force and clearly want to convey a sense of solidarity with what is going on. For the first time they have participated in direct talks with the government (Suleiman). While the organization over the years has been divided along theological and political grounds, it has retained a serious presence especially as a charity group which has worked hard to come to the aid of the poor and others in straitened circumstances.
Most experts believe the Muslim Brotherhood still support a strong role for Islam in Egypt, will bide their time, but at the same time are not excludable from the conversations about the future or the transition. Their leadership is aging, along with the Mubarak crowd, but they can touch the grass roots and Egypt is a country which regards piety as a serious virtue, accepts a close relationship between Islam and politics while remaining negative about a fundamentalist course for the country. Many in Israel, in the West and the region are very much concerned by their future role and influence, sharing a view that their continuing objective is an Islamic fundamentalist state in Egypt. Many believe that any move on their part to assert control will be long term. They could in the judgment of some achieve between 25-40 percent of the vote in a future free and fair election, depending heavily on other candidates and parties and the issues. They bear watching.
The fact that Yemeni demonstrators don’t operate in the afternoon because they stop to chew the traditional, mildly narcotic Qat leaf, is perhaps some indication of their current level of seriousness!
For the region and beyond, what is now happening in Egypt is also significant. Long seen as a major, if not the major leader in the Arab world, Egypt and what happens there has had wide influence. Egypt’s central role in the peace efforts; its control of the Suez Canal and the associated pipeline (Sumed); its military power; economic strength; 80 million people; long history of culture and art; and the fact that it is the most significant tourist and historical, archeological destination in the region all make it important, unique and very influential. Contagion is the first worry for many. What happened in Tunisia undoubtedly had an influence in Egypt. Many experts for years have worried about instability in Egypt. All were taken by surprise by the timing, the extent and the impact of the changes. Unfortunately too, while Tunisia seems to be stabilizing quickly and moving on to change and reform, in Egypt it will be more difficult and certainly more challenging.
For some states where the military are likely to support the regime, including with active force–Algeria, Libya and Syria–there are unlikely to be successful, local efforts to change things. In others, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, sufficient oil and gas income distributed to assure economic progress and individual income will undercut much of the impetus for the protests. In Jordan, Sudan, Yemen and in Lebanon for other reasons, the situation needs to be watched with care. Jordan has already moved to begin again reforms stalled in 2006 by elite, East Bank Jordanian opposition to the process. The monarchy holds a place in the public mind as the stabilizer and guarantor of the country, but discontent among the large Palestinian community, significant corruption and unemployment and stalled reforms will have to be overcome. Yemen remains fragile with a plethora of weapons, tribalism, and an on-going shi’ia (Houthi) revolt in the north and the now traditional tensions between South Yemen and the north all there to make matters worse. The fact that Yemeni demonstrators don’t operate in the afternoon because they stop to chew the traditional, mildly narcotic Qat leaf, is perhaps some indication of their current level of seriousness!
While Israelis may well now see the relative calm they have enjoyed in the area disturbed, it may also lead to some nostalgia that the chances for progress on peace over the last few months have now been squandered and a newer, harder dispensation might well prevail.
Israel in, but not of, the region is going through its own period of angst bordering on anguish at the developments in Egypt. There is concern that a new Egypt may well be less supportive of the peace treaty with Israel and any future processes to bring peace. Egypt has been a quiet supporter, if not ally, with Israel in dealing with Hamas in Gaza. So far the Israeli Government and Prime Minister have been silent in public, understanding, somewhat uncharacteristically, that they can only possibly effect the situation negatively with more public pronouncements. Inside Israel, the conversation is deeply concerned and pervasively pessimistic. While Israelis may well now see the relative calm they have enjoyed in the area disturbed, it may also lead to some nostalgia that the chances for progress on peace over the last few months have now been squandered and a newer, harder dispensation might well prevail. While for some the possible benefits of a successful process seem now to be more important, the current leadership in Israel is highly unlikely to move in that direction.
In the United States, for not the first time in our long history, we find ourselves conflicted over whether our realist aims of security and stability can be reconciled with our idealist aims of democracy and freedom. In effect, the President’s policy reflects the need to harmonize those, to walk the narrow tight rope between the two, and to move as the process evolves to supporting a transition in Egypt which can bring in democracy and freedom, while it also tries to preserve its regional position, stability and commitment to a process of peace. With some early hiccups on a few points, the President and his team seem generally to have done this well. We do not and I see no way we can control the situation. That is up to Egyptians who so far appear to be moving through great difficulties with care and imagination.
…too many American pronouncements can violate the first rule of medicine, which also applies to diplomacy, the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”
Because we do not and cannot control things, we need to work quietly and diplomatically behind the scenes, putting our support in favor of change while at the same time seeking to preserve stability. In public, I agree with those who say that we need to support our principles and make sure we stay with them. The President has been a careful articulator of this approach and has understood well that too much American pressure and too many American pronouncements can violate the first rule of medicine, which also applies to diplomacy, the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” Indeed too much activist, American intervention could well have very negative results for us.
We have much at stake in this potentially major ‘sea change’ in Egypt and beyond. One aspect of that which we need to watch is what happens here could well have an effect on how people see their governments throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Hopefully and perhaps even more importantly, it will send a strong message to governments that it is even more important for them to understand the importance of how they serve and treat their people.
…authoritarian regimes, no matter how cleverly managed, cannot depend forever on repression to survive.
The final results will not be in for some time. There is no certainty that the crisis will not deepen and become more challenging. While there is hope for real change, that too is not a certainty. Revolutionary change from Iran to Poland has taught us that there is little predestined to happen and that good as well as bad results can be expected. Deeper however than these short term outcomes, is the fact that authoritarian regimes, no matter how cleverly managed, cannot depend forever on repression to survive. From the Soviet Union to Egypt we have seen this change. It sometimes takes a long time, the outcomes are never certain, but it is a fact of life on this planet. For a number of states, from Angola to China, this lesson will also not be lost nor hopefully studied in vain.
In the end, for Egyptians, for us and for many others this is going to be a long, hard, slow process. Patience, determination, good sense, diplomacy and care will be the hall marks of success. It is a development that promises momentous consequences. Whether that promise is fulfilled depends above all on ordinary Egyptians in the streets and their leaders.
Currently vice chair of the international consulting firm, Hills & Company, Ambassador Thomas Pickering served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1997-2000) and as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan. He also was the U.S. Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations in New York, where he led the U.S. effort to build a coalition in the U.N. Security Council during and after the first Gulf War. He has held additional positions in Tanzania, Geneva, and Washington, including as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans, Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and as Special Assistant to secretaries of state William P. Rogers and Henry A. Kissinger. After retiring from the State Department in 2000, Ambassador Pickering joined The Boeing Company as senior vice president for international relations. He serves on a number not-for-profit boards and speaks French, Spanish, and Swahili fluently and also Arabic, Hebrew, and Russian. As a member of the Bowdoin College Class of 1953, Ambassador Pickering graduated cum laude with high honors in history and went on to earn a master’s degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. In 2005, he was awarded Bowdoin’s highest honor—The Bowdoin Prize—for his distinguished career as a statesman and diplomat.