Is It More Destabilizing if Mubarak Stays?

The US seems to be putting “stability ahead of democracy” in its dealings with Egypt on the assumption that a slow transition or even the survival of the existing regime would be more stabilizing than the alternative. But as is evident in Egypt right now, the status quo is not very stabilizing. If it were, hundreds of thousands of people wouldn’t be out on the street today. In fact, should the new Vice President Omar Suleiman or President Hosni Mubarak succeed in outlasting the protests and possibly killing hopes of a transition, the outcome could in fact likely be very destabilizing.

It seems pretty clear that the Egyptian regime’s current strategy is to attempt to claim reform is happening in the hope that this will sap the protersters of energy and support as life in Egypt begins to returns to normal. Having outlasted the protesters, and with the protesters no longer out in the streets, Mubarak could quite plausibly refuse to leave office or simply initiate an “orderly transition” to a new autocrat such as Omar Suleiman.

While many would suggest that this outcome would suit the US just fine, that strikes as a very naïve reading of the situation. The failure of the peaceful protest movement could plausibly result in a radicalization of some of the opposition, prompting the more desperate and radical members to turn to violence.

The most committed protesters have already endured considerable violence during the clashes with pro-government forces. They have organized themselves in response, showing impressive discipline and commitment. Many also now believe that should Mubarak, or the regime survive, they will likely be arrested. It is therefore all or nothing for some of these protesters – a fear likely compounded by Suleiman insistence in keeping the “emergency law” in place. Should Mubarak and the regime hang on, one could therefore plausibly imagine a very small portion of the opposition turning to violence – bombings, assassination attempts, coordinated attacks, etc.

Even if violence doesn’t emerge, we are, at the very least, laying the groundwork for decades of continued anti-Americanism in the region. The protests in Egypt were looked to with hope around the region and should they fail the United States will likely be viewed as culpable in the killing the prospect of democracy in Egypt. This would be another huge blow to public perception of the US in the Middle East and would all but kill the credibility of an Administration and a President who less than two years ago went to Cairo to call for reform.

Currently, backing Suleiman, staying agnostic on the role of Mubarak, and advocating a go slow approach for the transition is predictably leading to blow back against the United States in the “Arab Street”:

The result has been to feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals, and leaving hopes of nurturing peaceful, gradual change in large part in the hands of Egyptian officials — starting with Mr. Suleiman — who have every reason to slow the process.

The problem for the United States is that the regime’s survival in Egypt would reinforce the central gist of Al Qaeda’s central claim against the West: that change is impossible in the Middle East because the United States will prevent it. Therefore, Al Qaeda insists that to create change in the region they must strike first at the US and the West to get them to stop interfering in the Middle East. In other words, if we are seen as culpable in killing the protests, we are playing directly into Al Qaeda’s narrative.

Maybe the negative blowback of the regime’s survival will be minimal, but it seems foolish to assume that the current unstable status quo, will be less destabilizing than a prompt transition to “real democracy.”