Jackson Diehl
Deputy editorial page editor September 25, 2011

Is Egypt imploding?

A lot of people in Washington seem to think so, though they are talking about it quietly so far. Their fears are specific: that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic fundamentalist parties will take power when Egypt’s first democratic elections are held later this year; and that peace with Israel — the foundation of a 30-year, American-backed order in the Middle East — is “hanging by a thread,” as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. View Archive

There is reason, of course, to worry about those scenarios. But here’s what emerged in conversations I had last week with a number of Egyptian journalists, activists and officials: The most immediate and urgent threat in Egypt is not a dramatic Islamic coup or a diplomatic rupture with the Jewish state, but prolongation of the chaotic and directionless regime the country now lives under.

Egypt exists in a strange, unpredictable netherworld between military dictatorship and liberal democracy. Since Hosni Mubark’s regime was overthrown in February, free media, political parties and civil society groups have flourished; there are daily strikes and street demonstrations; Mubarak himself is on trial. But thousands have been summarily sentenced to prison by military courts. Bloggers who criticize the army have been harassed, and a regime of “emergency law” — which officially bans most public gatherings — has been revived.

The ruling military council says that parliamentary elections will be held beginning in late November. But it has yet to specify exact dates, the form representation will take, the electoral districts that will be used or what duties the new parliament will have — other than choosing an assembly to write a new constitution. Nor do Egyptians know when a presidential election will take place, whether it will be before or after the new constitution is completed or whether the military will seek to give itself special oversight powers in the new political order. Announcements are made, then abruptly revised or reversed, depending on whom the generals last consulted with.

Meanwhile, the economy is tanking as tourists and foreign investors keep their distance. The military recently demonstrated its economic acumen by abruptly imposing new visa requirements on foreign visitors, before just as hastily lifting them.

The generals once promised to turn over power by this month. But, at best, the parliamentary elections will be completed at the end of February. The presidential election, which would finally end military rule, could come in nine months, some analysts predict; others say it could be put off 18 months while delegates dicker over the new constitution.

The great problem here is that elections are the most likely means of arresting the downward spiral. Five of the leading six candidates for president are responsible secular centrists; the runaway favorite, so far, is former foreign minister and Arab League general secretary Amr Moussa. Moussa may be a recent convert to liberal democracy, and he is known for striking populist poses against Israel. But he would almost certainly run a better government than the military and give the economy a chance to recover.

True, Islamist parties may win a plurality in the parliamentary elections. Estimates of their potential vote range from 10 to 40 percent. But that still means they would hold a minority of seats; and the Islamists themselves are divided into several factions. The strongest of them recognize that they will not be able to force a fundamentalist agenda on Egypt’s secular middle class or its large Christian minority, at least in the short and medium terms.

What about Israel? Moussa was recently quoted as saying that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is “untouchable” and that the sacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo this month was “unacceptable.” Every major political party in Cairo has denounced the embassy attack, and while some have called for renegotiating the treaty’s security provisions, none wants to cancel it. The mob that attacked the embassy was largely composed not of political revolutionaries but of soccer hooligans who had gathered in the center of Cairo because they were angry at being harassed by police. When they marched on the embassy, police at first did nothing to stop them.

Those who worry about an Egyptian implosion sometimes hint that the elections should be further postponed or even canceled. In fact, the opposite is needed. The United States and other Western governments ought to adopt the demand put forward in a letter last week by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was one of the leaders of the revolution: that the military “quickly announce specific dates for the process of transferring complete power . . . to an elected civilian authority that would control everything in the nation.” Egypt’s problem is neither its revolution nor its prospective democracy: It’s what is happening — and may yet happen — between the two.

diehlj@washpost.com