One question, above all else, has hung over the massive protests filling Egypt’s cities over the past few days: Would Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stay in office or bow to the growing demands that he step aside?
Mubarak has now answered that question himself, telling Egyptian state television in a pre-recorded address that he would not seek reelection this September. If he sticks to his vow, Mubarak will become one of the first Arab leaders in recent history to leave office without being killed or otherwise violently forced out of power.
“I will say very clearly, and regardless of the current situation, I did not intend to run for another term,” Mubarak said, in a conciliatory address that nevertheless accused Egypt’s protesters of being manipulated by unspecified outside forces. “I will work for a peaceful transition in the few months which are left to me.”
Mubarak’s decision to step aside after nearly 30 years comes amid mounting pressure from both inside and outside his country. In Egypt, an estimated 1 million people filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square today to chant anti-Mubarak slogans and demand he relinquish power. In Washington, President Obama spoke by phone with Mubarak earlier in the day and bluntly told the Egyptian leader not to run for another term.
The announcement represents a historic moment for both Egypt and the broader Arab world, which had already been rocked by Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s decision to step down late last month after mammoth protests over his long tenure in office. Similar protests have since broken out in Yemen and Jordan, raising questions about the future stability of both countries. Mubarak himself has for decades been one of the closest U.S. allies in the Arab world, playing a key role in mediating peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and seeking to drum up Arab support for a tough line towards Iran.
The coming end of Mubarak’s decades-long rule removes the largest question looming over the mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria, and Egypt’s other major cities. But it sets in motion a series of difficult decisions for Washington, Jerusalem, and the Egyptian people themselves. How those questions are answered will determine whether Egypt emerges as a symbol of hope for other Arab nations or a cautionary tale about the dangers of replacing a known quantity like Mubarak -- despite his failings -- with newer, untested, and largely unknown leaders.
Below are the major questions that will confront U.S., Israeli and other policymakers in the wake of Mubarak’s decision to cede power.
Will Mubarak’s promise be enough? The protesters crowding Cairo and other major cities have been demanding that Mubarak step aside immediately, and many of the protesters in Tahrir Square noisily heckled Mubarak with chants of “leave, leave” after his putative resignation speech was broadcast just after midnight there. Mubarak and his aides hope his clear promise to leave power this fall will defuse the protests and gradually restore the country to a sense of normalcy. But it’s not clear that the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets in recent days, with many tasting political freedom for the first time, will be willing to simply return home and trust that Mubarak will keep his promise to leave power in September. Mubarak, with his promise to die in Egypt, has hinted strongly that he will not flee the country. If Egypt’s protesters continue to demand his immediate resignation, that could set the stage for a potentially violent confrontation in coming days and weeks.
Who will emerge as Egypt’s next leader? The remarkable thing about the current protests is that they lack any centralized coordination or organized leadership. The flip side is that the protests haven’t coalesced around a single figure who could step in as an interim Egyptian leader or run as the consensus opposition candidate in September’s elections. In recent days, many protesters have begun to gravitate towards Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and former head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency. But ElBaradei isn’t well known in Egypt, and some protesters have already begun to complain that he has lived overseas too long to properly understand their concerns. ElBaradei also has no military background, which has long been a prerequisite for Egypt’s rulers. Another possibility is Ayman Nour, Egypt’s best-known dissident, but he has been largely invisible during the current protests. The upshot is that -- unlike Lech Walesa’s transformation from protest leader to Poland’s first post-Communism leader -- it is far from clear who will replace Mubarak if he keeps his vow to step aside in September.
Should the U.S. work with the Muslim Brotherhood? The closest thing to an organized opposition in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group which has an estimated 600,000 followers. Mubarak formally banned the group from participating in Egypt’s political process, but its members run for office as independents, and won 20 percent of the seats in parliament in 2005. The Muslim Brotherhood was once an openly militant organization whose fighters carried out a series of attacks across Egypt, most notably the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. The group has since renounced violence, and the Obama administration said this weekend it was prepared to see the Muslim Brotherhood play a formal role in Egypt’s future. The group’s leadership has said it will not seek to take power when Mubarak steps down and would instead back ElBaradei. But skeptics worry the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t fully embraced a peaceful path and could take advantage of the power vacuum created by Mubarak’s departure to press for the adoption of stricter adherence to Islamic law.
What happens to Egypt’s peace deal with Israel? Egypt’s decades-long peace agreement with Israel is deeply unpopular with many Egyptians, and Israeli officials fear that virtually any leader who follows Mubarak will seek to either weaken or entirely abrogate it. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, maintains close ties to Hamas and has made no secret of its desire to back out of the accords and take a much tougher stance towards the Jewish state. Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never enjoyed warm personal relationships with Mubarak, but they trusted his commitment to the Camp David accords and saw him as a valuable regional ally. That, in turn, allowed generations of Israeli policymakers to design their national security strategies around the belief that Israel would never again face an armed threat from Egypt, which possesses -- thanks to decades of generous American aid -- the region’s second-strongest military. But Egypt’s next rulers, particularly if they come from the Muslim Brotherhood, could gradually back out of those accords, forcing Israel to ramp up its defense spending and deploy significant numbers of troops to its southern border for the first time since the early 1980s.
Policymakers in Washington and Jerusalem have assumed for days that Mubarak would soon step down, and have already begun thinking through what may come next. But the Obama administration and its allies have only limited influence on the future course of events on the ground in Egypt. In the end, the answers to the many questions set off by Mubarak’s departure will have to come from the Egyptians themselves.