The last two weeks of protests and unrest in Egypt have meant one thing - the end of the Mubarak regime is near. As Mubarak’s allies devise a face-saving way for him to leave office, former allies like Tony Blair have already begun talking about engaging with his successor. Who? And more importantly, what side of the political spectrum would this individual represent is, at present, the million dollar question.
Pundits have suggested that the Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood are poised to take over the reins of government. The Brotherhood is, after all, the oldest and perhaps most organised opposition group in Egypt, and it has the numbers, the credibility as well as the capability to do so despite being outlawed since 1954.
The Brotherhood’s quest for political control has been enthusiastically supported by Iran. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly encouraged Egyptians to put an Islamic regime into power, and has even credited the uprising against Mubarak to the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran’s support for the Brotherhood is currently limited to moral/rhetorical support but could well turn into tangible support in terms of finance and even weapons if the Brotherhood gains political ground.
However, it is not in the Brotherhood’s interests to align itself with Iran at this stage - in addition to religious ideological differences (Iran is Shiite and the Muslim Brotherhood is Sunni), it would open itself to accusations of being an Iranian client, which would jeopardise its chances of securing political power.
Until its position is secured, the Brotherhood must be seen as a purely domestic opposition group that is working towards the advancement of the Egyptian people. It is for this reason that it has recently opted to enter into dialogue with Mubarak’s recently-appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman to discuss the crisis and solutions for the interim.
A possible Islamist regime in Egypt with Iranian support has naturally caused much discomfort to the US and its allies, and in particular, Israel. The Brotherhood has already indicated that it does not recognise Israel and would not adhere to the existing Egyptian-Israeli ‘peace’ treaty. This would threaten current security and economic arrangements between the two countries, which are of strategic importance to Israel.
For instance, Egypt supplies about 40% of natural gas to Israel, and a cessation of this would result in a significant increase in the cost of fuel. The Netanyahu government is also fearful that Israel would face a greater security threat on its Western border from a possible collaboration between the Brotherhood and HAMAS in Gaza.
And if an Islamist regime was successfully installed in Egypt, Islamists in other Middle-eastern countries, such as Jordan, would be encouraged to seize power. Israel would literally be surrounded by hostile neighbours, and its worst fears and often cited basis of its security doctrine would be realised.
The US, too, has much to be concerned about. Its influence in the Middle East would be drastically curtailed as an Islamist Egypt would most likely align itself with America’s emerging superpower rival China. It is for this reason that the US has been willing to reassess its approach towards the Brotherhood at least in the short-run.
It cannot be said with any degree of certainty that this amicability towards the brotherhood will continue in the long run. Thus the ideal candidate to succeed Mubarak, as far as the US and Israel are concerned, is an individual who can be relied upon to protect their interests in the long run. But the Egyptian uprising is not about protecting US and Israeli interests is it?
Egypt’s next president faces several daunting challenges. He/she is expected to: (a) narrow the gap between rich and poor; (b) rebuild the economy; (c) reduce unemployment; (d) evaluate Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Three candidates have emerged as possible contenders for the presidency. The first is Mohamed El Baradei. Recently returned to Egypt following the start of the uprising, El Baradei has been working tirelessly to boost his credibility among Egyptians. He has participated in the uprising, launched scathing criticisms against Mubarak, sought dialogue with the other opposition groups, and is actively trying to broker terms for a transitional government in preparation for Mubarak’s imminent departure. He has hinted at his ambitions for political office as well, saying: “Naturally I want to play a part in the future, but who stands in the election, that’s really not so important at the moment. But if the people want it, of course I would be available.”
Perceived as an intellectual, moderate and advocate for democracy, El Baradei is well thought of in international circles. He is widely-known for his role as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1997 to 2009. However, El Baradei is effectively an outsider in Egyptian politics. He has spent most of his life abroad, has insufficient street credit and is perceived as pro-West by many Egyptians.