Today violent street clashes broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Following President Hosni Mubarak’s pledge not to run for the Presidency again but remain in office until September and the opposition’s denunciation of that move as too little too late Tuesday night pro-Mubarak groups entered the fray. Men on camels and horses swept into the square during the afternoon whipping and clubbing anti-Mubarak protesters as they stormed through the crowd. Reporters were attacked and as evening came the clashes became more violent as the pro-Mubarak supports began to throw Molotov Cocktails at the demonstrators. The Army did appear to attempt to make some efforts to separate the groups and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds but did little else. The scene was remarkably different from Tuesday when the protesters calling for Mubarak to step down did so in a peaceful manner unmolested by the Army units in the square. The Egyptian military has aired television spots asking all of the protesters to “go home for the love of Egypt.”
Although the images shown on our television sets conjure the worst and appear to the country devolving into chaotic violence with unpredictable consequences. The fact is mystery shrouds developments outside the view of the cameras surrounding Tahrir Square. We are unaware of what is transpiring inside the government or the military. We are unsure about the extent of Egypt’s government or ruling party’s involvement in today’s counter demonstrations, some reports are that some at least were ordered in from government jobs. The only thing that we can safely assume is that unless some kind of resolution acceptable to both sides arises the situation could get dramatically worse and imperil the success of any government that replaces the Mubarak regime whether he steps down in the next few weeks or holds on until September.
Regardless of the outcome Egypt and possibly much of the Arab World is at a turning point. Authoritarian regimes as different as that of Muammar Ghadaffi and Saudi Arabian King Abdullah have condemned the Egyptian uprisings as well as that which overthrew Ben Ali in Tunisia. They know that the dynamics at work in Egypt, unemployment, poverty and political repression are shared to one degree or another in much of the Arab World, the common factor repressive authoritarian regimes which to many lack legitimacy. Rulers in Jordan and Yemen have already seen demonstrations and Jordan’s king has fired his government apparently to get ahead of the protests and Yemen’s ruler has pledged to step down at the end of his term in 2014. Leaders of other Arab nations cast a wary eye on Egypt and their own opposition groups.
The Egyptian revolution will more than likely not result in fundamentalist Islam dominated state due to the unpopularity of such regimes as the Taliban and Iran in the Arab World. At the same time while Islamists are not leading the revolution in Egypt they are an important part of the Egyptian political landscape and must be taken into account. I would think that if the violence subsides and a peaceful orderly transition takes place that a government similar to Turkey, probably not led by a religious party could be the best result. Such a government would likely not be as close to the United States as Mubarak but probably remain an ally and not an active enemy of Israel as it seeks its own economic growth and stability to reinforce its pivotal role in the Arab World. However there is no guarantee of this outcome.
The worst outcome would be continued violence that leads to a radicalized country led by more extreme members of the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom have called the Egyptian people to prepare for war against Israel. Unfortunately unlike the older generation of Egyptians the new generation has not experienced war and war’s desolation. The older generation was at war with Israel for nearly 40 years suffering defeat after defeat. In 1967 they lost control of the Suez Canal and the income derived from it in the 6 Day War and in 1973 after successfully crossing the canal and inflicting heavy casualties on the previously invincible Israelis had the tables turned on them. An Israeli Army after driving off the Syrians in a desperate battle on the Golan Heights and advancing deep into that country crossed the Suez Canal, surrounded an Egyptian Army on the far side of the canal, lay siege to Suez and were poised to drive to Cairo saved only by a cease fire brokered by Henry Kissinger and the United Nations. The war nearly brought the Soviet Union and the United States into nuclear conflict when the Soviets marshaled Airborne divisions to intervene and President Nixon raised the DEFCOM from 4 to 3. I remember talking to Egyptian officers, veterans of the wars with Israel when I was a student at an Army school in 1983, they talked of sacrifice and the brutality of war and the effects of the war on their country. One simply said “I do not like Israel but I am tired of war and I do not want it for my children.” Since Camp David Egypt has had all of its territory in the Sinai returned was able to reopen the Suez Canal. Another war between Egypt and Israel would devastate both countries and for that matter not be contained. A radicalized government set on such a course would be an unmitigated disaster for Egypt, Israel and the world.
While we watch Egypt protests are about to begin in Yemen with a “day of rage” scheduled for Thursday with demonstrations planned in Syria and Jordan Friday and Saturday and even Bahrain on February 14th. Expect such demonstrations as the old guard of the Arab World experiences the long suppressed rage of their people which is now spread in seconds through the power of the social media. Meanwhile radicals in Iran, Al Qaeda and as well as other radicals and terrorist groups wait to take advantage. Yemen which has a strongly entrenched Al Qaeda organization and sits astride the strategically important Bab-el-Mendeb passage at the south end of the Red Sea is a country that is a prime target of these radicals and terrorists. All the other countries for different reasons are important to the stability of the Middle East.
Today’s protests in Tahrir Square killed three and wounded over 600.
We can only watch and wait….and pray as these events develop.