As the popular revolt in Egypt expands and the likelihood of the Mubarak regime’s collapse increases, the question C&E wants to ask is, “Who is advising the country’s political class?”
For Maram Abdelhamid, an Egyptian-American political and organization consultant who has family currently residing in Cairo’s suburbs, the uprising in Egypt defies classification. “Mubarak let two or three new parties form in the last five years. [Officials with the new parties] come to the U.S. through the State Department’s democracy and governance programs,” says Abdelhamid, who has extensive experience consulting in the Arab world. “When they come here, they ask Americans to interfere in their political process. They want us to help because they believe that change will come from outside, not within.” That makes the current revolt all the more surprising for Abdelhamid— the sudden emergence of a genuine, grassroots, youth-led uprising has stunned her as much as it seems to have stunned the government in Cairo.
Some have raised concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Egyptian Islamist political party, will take advantage of the unrest to install a fundamentalist regime. However, while Abdelhamid believes the country has become more religiously conservative over the last ten years, she argues that the Muslim Brotherhood does not have enough popular support to attain full control. “This could be the next Iran, if we don’t watch out,” she says. “But I don’t think the army will let it be that way.” She also believes that the significant Western-sponsored advocacy programs in the country will ensure that the state maintains a secular government should the Mubarak regime fall.
Abdelhamid believes the situation in the country could be effectively defused if Mubarak organized a dialogue between the opposition and the government and simultaneously declared that he would not stand in the country’s regularly scheduled presidential elections this September. (Reports yesterday that Mubarak had authorized his newly installed vice president, Omar Suleiman, to engage in dialogue with opposition groups indicates that he may be headed in this direction.) “The fact that [the protestors] want him out of the country is very interesting,” says Abdelhamid. “There is no one saying that [Mubarak] needs to be impeached. Let’s go through the constitutional channels, because Egypt has a constitution. [The protesters] simply don’t believe in the courts. They think all of it is corrupt.”
Jeff Jubelirer, a Philadelphia-based political crisis consultant with Jubelirer Strategies, thinks Mubarak has done himself and his government an irreversible disservice by shutting down the nation’s Internet as a means of curtailing communications. “You are never going to out-quantify those who have opposing views to your administration and are upset,” says Jubelirer, who adds that Mubarak would be better off using social media to co-opt the movement aligned against his government.
Jubelirer argues that allowing students and other organizers to voice their anger at the government via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media and giving the impression that the government is actively listening to the protestors’ demands could help to mollify the opposition. “It sends a message that we are not a dictatorship,” says Jubelirer. “We recognize that students have a right to communicate.”
As for the most prominent opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, Abdelhamid suggests that he is more media creation than genuine leader. Jubelirer says that ElBaradei must establish a presence online and harness the power of social media that the Mubarak regime has abdicated by attempting to shut down online communications. Secondly, he argues that ElBaradei can trade on his extensive contacts in the global community by having them disseminate information to Egyptian expatriates who, in turn, can communicate information down to the grassroots level in Egypt. “I would use surrogates in other parts of the world to get out the word for him,” says Jubelirer.
In this way, ElBaradei can confront questions about his legitimacy as the putative leader of the opposition movement. “Is he even legitimate? Do we want him? We don’t know that,” says Jubelirer, expressing the sentiments of the average Egyptian protestor. “Is he expressing the sentiments that are consistent across opposition to the Mubarak administration? Then he could become a leader by action, despite what he may become if the administration should or should not fall.”
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com