Stephen M. Walt: Now What? The Road Ahead in Egypt

Blog entry posted 02.07.2011

Egyptians have returned to the streets for what anti-government forces have dubbed a "day of departure." The early reports I''ve seen are heartening: the demonstrations are peaceful, more and more members of the elite appear to be embracing change, and key institutions like the army continue to behave with restraint and to enjoy respect from the crowds. If it holds up, this augurs well for a transition that avoids most of the worst-case scenarios.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on, trying to convince Hosni Mubarak to step down and to coordinate some sort of transitional process. I hope that is the case, because Egypt will need a credible caretaker government to orchestrate the revision of the constitution, conduct either new elections or the elections already scheduled for September, and to maintain order during this process. 

I don''t know what sort of transitional arrangements would work best, so I''m not going to prescribe any particular scenario or road-map. Instead, here are few items you might want to read, to get a sense of the different issues, possibilities, and pitfalls.

1. My colleage Tarek Masoud has an very interesting op-ed in today''s New York Times, arguing that Mubarak needs to say long enough to orchestrate a transition that is consistent with the existing constitution. His point is that it makes sense to change the government via existing procedures, to emphasize the importance of rule of law. I''m not convinced this will work (i.e., the popular forces may not tolerate it), but his broader point about giving the transitional process as much legitimacy as possible seems right to me. But would the best be the enemy of the good?

2. For an alternative procedure, see the statement by a group of Egyptian activists that was translated and released by the Carnegie Endowment here.  In their scenario, the Vice-President would oversee an independent process of revising the constitution and preparing for new elections, in consultation with independent jurists and constitutional experts.   For additional commentary on the proposal, and the more general problem of constitutional reform, see Egypt expert Nathan Brown''s posting here.

3. If you''ve been hearing those wild-eyed claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is a mortal threat to US interests and the nucleus of a future radical Islamic republic in Egypt, please read Helena Cobban''s thoughtful discussion of the MB and its background. I should add that I think the lurid fears of some sort of radical jihadist takeover of Egypt are wildly off-the-mark, especially so long as the Egyptian army remains intact and respected (as it has so far). And as Masoud says in the op-ed discussed above, "democracy in Egypt, or any other part of the world, is not something we should fear."

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.