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TURMOIL IN EGYPT | THE VIEW FROM ACADEMIA

Moment of promise and trepidation

A woman hugged her daughter in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday, hours before Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. A woman hugged her daughter in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday, hours before Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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Even the experts don’t know what’s going to happen next. Will the military consolidate control or will a new civilian leader emerge? What role will the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group play? And does that group pose a threat to the West?

As prodemocracy protesters brought down President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt yesterday, specialists who study the region said the moment is fraught with peril and with possibility.

“The next stage is entirely unpredictable,’’ said R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and former US ambassador to NATO who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“Are we witnessing the slow takeover of the Egyptian government by the armed services, or do they intend to be a responsible steward and let other people into the process?’’ Burns said. “I don’t know the answer to that question. And that’s the key question.’’

Egypt, a regional power, has long served key US interests, Burns said. It has maintained a peace with Israel. It has helped fight violent extremists. And it has helped block and contain Iran, he said.

“If, as a result of the coming transition, we are not able to protect those interests, that would be a grave blow to American foreign interests,’’ Burns said.

Still, like many, he was hopeful that the uprising would usher in a more democratic Egypt for the first time since military leaders seized control in the revolution of 1952.

“I never thought this day would come,’’ said Burns, who was a foreign service officer in Cairo in the 1980s. “I never thought the Egyptian people would organize themselves and overthrow the government. And they did it.’’

The specialists generally agreed that Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize laureate and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, might play a role in the transition, along with Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League and a former foreign minister in Egypt.

But they said it is not clear either man has enough popular support to become the next leader of Egypt.

“Egypt is in for a longish period of political turmoil,’’ said William C. Martel, a professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “We don’t know how this is going to evolve, or who the leaders are going to be. . . . These are highly unpredictable, highly unstable movements and events.’’

The specialists said it is not clear if the military can be trusted as a force for democracy after ruling Egypt with an iron hand. But the military appeared to abandon Mubarak during the uprising, and many soldiers were seen shaking hands and making other gestures of solidarity with protesters.

Specialists said they will be watching to see if the military invites reformers into a transitional government or installs its generals in positions of power.

“It’s very easy now to get caught up in the enthusiasm, and if I were in Tahrir Square now, I would certainly be enthusiastic,’’ said Shai Feldman, chair of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. “But to quote Winston Churchill, at best, it’s the end of the beginning.’’

Opinions differed on the threat to the West posed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ashraf Hegazy, the son of an Egyptian diplomat and executive director of the Kennedy School’s Dubai Initiative, said the group’s clout has been exaggerated, and the Muslim Brotherhood may change if it can participate in government.

“Historically, when they have been allowed to participate in the political sphere, they have become more and more moderate,’’ he said. “And when they were excluded from the political sphere, they become more extreme.’’

But Feldman said there is reason for the United States and its allies to be concerned about the group’s extremism. He said the Muslim Brotherhood may be able to take advantage of the power vacuum in Egypt because he said the group is better organized than the country’s other political factions.

“Of course, the Israelis are nervous,’’ Feldman said. “Are they exaggerated in their nervousness? Probably.’’

The specialists agreed that the uprising in Egypt would encourage similar democratic movements in other Arab regimes, perhaps in Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan.

“I find it very hard to believe that this phenomenal surge of reform is going to stop in Egypt, because it’s Egypt — it’s the heart and soul of politics and culture in the Arab world,’’ Burns said.

Feldman predicted that other Arab dictators may respond to Mubarak’s ouster by making largely symbolic reforms while moving quickly to quash any signs of unrest.

“You can bet your life they’ve put their security services on the highest form of alert,’’ Feldman said.

The American government must be careful not to appear to be propping up the next government, or that government will lose its legitimacy, the specialists said.

“We have a special role in promoting democracy, but there are profound limits to our ability,’’ Martel said. “The less we say, the better. . . . We’re better as observers, frankly.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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