Egypt has had essentially three regimes, represented by three different Presidents, since the overthrow of the monarchy.
Under Nasser, Egypt pursued an ideological foreign policy: pan-Arabist, socialist, loosely aligned with the Soviet Union. This policy resulted in the Suez crisis (which revealed Egypt to be essentially defenseless against its Israeli neighbor; Egypt “won” the crisis only because the United States and the Soviet Union were united in their opposition to the actions of Britain and France – because they were competing with each other for the “hearts and minds” of the bulk of the decolonizing planet); in the ill-fated union with Syrian to form the United Arab Republic; in the pointless and destructive invasion of Yemen; and in the catastrophic loss of the Sinai all the way to the east bank of the canal to Israel in the 1967 war. What this policy achieved for the Egyptian people, I don’t know.
Under Sadat, Egypt reversed course almost completely. Egypt kicked out the Soviets and welcomed in the Americans. Egypt won the only military victory by an Arab army against Israel in the opening days of the 1973 war, successfully crossing the canal and capturing the east bank. (Once again, Cold War politics determined the outcome of the war, as the United States was unwilling to see Israel overrun from the north, and the Soviet Union was unwilling to let the Egyptian Third Army be obliterated once Israel had turned the tables in Sinai and recrossed the canal.) Then, trading force for diplomacy, Egypt put aside leadership of the Arab world (whatever that was worth) in exchange for full return of the Sinai and peace with Israel, without taking any responsibility for the Palestinians in Gaza. (It should be noted that in both 1956 and 1967, Israel attacked sovereign Egyptian territory before Egypt had fired a shot, and that in 1973 Egypt’s initiating attack was not against Israeli territory, but against Israeli positions on Egyptian territory in the Sinai. Peace with Israel qua peace was valuable for both sides.)
After Sadat’s death, Egypt’s foreign policy reverted to something of a nullity. Even after the Oslo Accords and the peace with Jordan had ended Egypt’s isolation as the only Arab country to make peace with Israel, Egypt’s profile within the Arab world rose not at all. Egyptian diplomats like Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Muhammad ElBaradei rose to the highest ranks in international institutions, but Egypt itself had almost no voice in world affairs. Today, there is a consensus that Brazil and India are under-represented in global councils, and there is debate whether countries like Turkey or South Africa or (if it weren’t a pariah state) Iran also deserve greater recognition. Who speaks of Egypt? Egypt has spent a generation exporting its most promising citizens, stagnating economically and politically. If I were a middle-class Egyptian, I would be pretty disappointed with my country. And popular revolutions are never made by the poor. They are made by a disappointed middle class.
Now Egypt is on the brink of its fourth post-revolutionary regime. What will its character be? Where will it go from here?
Mubarak has come to the end of the line substantially because he tried to turn Egypt into a personal fiefdom and establish a hereditary dictatorship, and most of the regime opposed such a move. This crisis provides the army with the opportunity to finally ease Mubarak out of power, provided Mubarak understands that his time is up. If he doesn’t, the crisis could lead to a clash between elements within the military, or to an explicit coup.
The role of the United States is, basically, to try to smooth the way behind the scenes for something approximating a South Korean-type endgame, where a transitional regime affiliated with the old powers agrees to play by new rules, paving the way for an opposition coalition to win in the future. Is that possible? I don’t think anybody can say for sure. But we don’t need to know, because second-best outcomes follow the same path. The worst-case scenario would be for Egypt to arrive at a truly revolutionary situation, with the collapse of the government and the seizure of power by a temporarily united opposition. This is the most likely scenario to lead to an Islamic regime, precisely because the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized non-state political force, which privileges it in a situation of political chaos. Nearly as bad would be for the army to side explicitly with the Mubarak regime and crush the Egyptian people by force, as this would make the Egyptian regime transparently illegitimate, and would make it practically impossible for the United States to continue its relationship with Egypt as it has in the past (and the Egyptian regime would, undoubtedly, look for other sponsorship to shore up its position). The only way to avoid either scenario would be to rely on the military to ease the current regime out, and do so in a context of some dialogue with the opposition. This appears to be pretty much what the United States is quietly nudging the military to do behind the scenes.
The risks, of course, are twofold. First, the military, already the overwhelmingly dominant institution in Egyptian life, decides it doesn’t really trust the idea of handing the reigns over to a civilian. Call this the “Pakistani” scenario. Second, the military could permit elections – and those elections could be won by an Islamist-led slate. And the military could then retroactively cancel the elections, leading to civil war. Call this the “Algerian” scenario. But those are not the only possibilities. Other countries – Turkey for one example; Thailand for another – have developed politically, if fitfully, in the shadow of an overwhelmingly dominant military. A great deal depends on the personalities involved and the choices they make, as well as the overall economic climate and the opportunities that the country in question has to take advantage of same (which, in turn, is a function of so many factors: demographic profile, geography, etc). I know nothing about the personalities of the various Egyptian generals waiting in the wings. But, then again, nobody knew much – or thought much – of Sadat when he was waiting in the wings, and he turned out to be an enormously significant – and positive – figure in Egyptian history.
One thing the United States should be clear on, though. A successful Egyptian regime will be less-tractable than an unsuccessful one dependent on the largess of the United States. We could make things worse by handling the transition badly, either provoking a revolutionary situation or provoking a catastrophic repression. But we can’t engineer a pro-American or even pro-Western outcome. Look at Turkey. The rise of an Islamist-tinted regime has gone hand-in-hand with significant economic and political development in that country, hand-in-hand with greater respect for individual rights and greater economic integration with the region and with Europe. That doesn’t mean that Turkey is turning into an enemy – it means it is turning more independent, becoming less-tractable, a less-reliable supporter of American foreign policy. We have to live with that. We have to hope we have to live with that in Egypt, because it would be a sign of progress.
Abrogation of the peace with Israel is emphatically not in Egypt’s interest. That, ultimately, is what keeps the peace on that border – the treaty merely formalizes that understanding, and makes it clear that Egypt (and Israel) understand their own interests in this matter, and are not deluded into thinking that a radically revisionist path might bring greater gains despite enormous risks. An Egypt that pursues its own national interest, conservatively understood, is not a threat to Israel or to the United States. But that doesn’t mean it will be helpful to either. If our aims are not well-aligned, it’s rather unlikely to be.
UPDATE: Two clarifications:
One, I wasn’t as clear as I might have been what a “truly revolutionary” situation is. I don’t mean simply the fall of the government, but a situation where the state itself falls apart and a radicalized opposition must create a new one. I don’t anticipate Egypt getting to that position, most particularly because the army, the backbone of the state, appears to be fully functional and united. The collapse of the government and the organization of popular elections, in and of itself, would be a very positive development for the country, and far from a bad outcome for the United States, particularly given the likely alternatives. The main question, though, would still be the relationship between the military and that new establishment.
Which brings me to the second clarification. The Egyptian regime as it stands is very much a creation of the military, but it is not a military regime as such, and the military itself is still perceived by many of the people to be a popular institution rather than an independent interest group. In some sense, then, a transitional period orchestrated by the military would not represent a significant break with recent Egyptian history, but rather the true “deep state” turning (finally) against one of its own who had overstepped his bounds (particularly by trying to put his son on the throne). Nonetheless, there is a risk in such a transition, inasmuch as Nasser chose Sadat and Sadat chose Mubarak, but now Mubarak’s successor would be chosen by the legions.