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Turmoil in Egypt Rages: Key Questions and Answers

February 3, 2011 |
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Clashes between protesters and government supporters intensified Thursday in central Cairo and began to spread around the city. Meanwhile, the government claimed foreigners were partly to blame for more than a week of demonstrations demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the country's ruler for nearly three decades. 

The ongoing turmoil raises numerous questions about what really is happening now and where it will lead. Here are some answers:

What can the United States do to influence Mubarak and the situation within Egypt?

American influence over President Hosni Mubarak and the situation in Egypt is often overstated. The dynamics at play in protests against the government are like an enormous storm and the United States can't do much to change its course. That said, the U.S. provides about $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, $1.2 billion of which goes to the military, which also has excellent relations with the U.S. defense establishment and Pentagon. Withdrawing the aid could harm the Israel-Egypt equation and diminish influence with the military. Thus, the real influence that the United States has is through international opinion, focusing a spotlight on abuses and Egypt's fake democracy.

What are the likely scenarios if Mubarak stays or if he leaves?

President Mubarak was expected by many observers to transfer authority for his "political franchise" to his son, Gamal Mubarak, who is a senior official in the ruling National Democratic Party. Thus the question is not whether Hosni Mubarak leaves Egypt but whether the Mubarak political franchise, which his son has helped reinvigorate, holds on. If Mubarak remains in Egypt, it is likely that his own power will decline. He may also be marginalized in the debates over what the next political order will look like and which parties will be legitimately included. But the NDP as an institution may try to argue that it has as much right to participate as any other.

If Mubarak leaves, then the military is likely to become the backbone of a caretaker government that puts forward a plan to broaden the number of political parties that can participate in government.  It's unclear whether the military, which will want to be perceived as an impartial arbiter between the various political factions, will ultimately be trusted by the protesters to perform this role.

The real problem today is the ticking clock. The military and even the Mubarak administration are making moves that two weeks ago seemed impossible and thus they feel that they are responding to the public at a fast and deliberate pace. But the expectations of the protesters, and the international community are reflected in White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' words: "Change needs to start yesterday."

The other possible scenario is that the public fails to give ground; that Mubarak staying or going becomes irrelevant, and that Egypt slips into civil war and anarchy. There is a chance of this happening given the increasingly tough and inflexible military posture towards the protests and the seeming dissatisfaction among protesters with the government's moves.

Most of the images we see are from Tahrir Square, the center of the protests. What do we know about what is going on in Cairo outside of the Square? What is life like for ordinary Egyptians during this crisis?

Egyptian life is hard.  Money dispensing machines are shut down.  Banks are closed.  Department and grocery stores are shut down.  Transport and distribution of everyday goods is inconsistent and mostly paralyzed.  People's lives are paralyzed — and much of Egypt either in the square or in the environs around Cairo and elsewhere in the country is surviving on the adrenaline of large doses of hope and fear.  World wheat, corn, and basic staples prices are extremely high on global markets — and prices are spiking higher.  Egypt is one of the world's largest food importers, and these trends make life for an already large impoverished population even more difficult.  The political stakes going on are also stakes that involve human and food security throughout the country.

Egypt's Vice President promised elections within 200 days. What evidence is there to suggest that these elections will be any different from those the country has held for decades?

Nine days of protests have completely transformed Egypt's political landscape. It is impossible to predict what will happen 200 days from now. That said, there is no evidence that left to their own devices Mubarak and the current government will allow free and fair elections. In fact, most evidence points to the contrary. The more time Mubarak and current power brokers have in power, the more chance they may have to manipulate the political process. Elections in the future will only be different than those in the past if the Egyptian people, supported by the international community, force the government to allow them.

Another important, though not often discussed, issue is that the basic constitutional laws on political participation, elections, and the power of the presidency may need to be altered before a free and fair election can take place. And at this point, there is no clear way to see how a paralyzed government with a reluctant incumbent president will accede to these needed changes.

Who is behind the attacks on journalists and anti-Mubarak protesters?

The preponderance of evidence points to part of the current government.  The real vexing question beginning to emerge now is what is the government?  Previously, the National Democratic Party, the police, and the national army were all part of the same operation and were recognized as the government.  Today, the army is purporting to be the backbone of and protector of the government — and the National Democratic Party and police seem to be arms of the Mubarak franchise, no longer "the government" per se.

Reporters on the ground, like The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, say it was "an organized government crackdown, but it relied on armed hoodlums, not on police or army troops." Earlier today, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced that the situation in Egypt "was an intimidation campaign to scare journalists." There is considerable uncertainty over who is personally accountable.

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