The attention of many foreign policy pundits, on television and blogs and in newspapers and magazines, has turned to a two-pronged debate about the future direction of Egyptian politics.
One side (international thinkers and writers, the American left), with a decidedly optimistic view, sees the future of Egypt through the lens of contemporary Turkey. Here, Egypt evolves into a secular state, fronted by non-religious (perhaps youth- or labor-oriented) political parties and backed by a strong military. It embraces the concept of democracy in principle and in practice. It comfortably straddles the worlds of the West and the Middle East, cultivating friendly and productive ties to both regions. Egypt harkens back to Nasserism by embracing nationalism, and its citizens expect the state to protect and defend national interests. As such, the Egyptian state becomes more willing to assert its preferences, grievances, and demands with rivals, friends, and foes. Egypt sometimes partners with the West on issues, but its cooperation is no longer to be taken for granted.
The other side in the debate (some American conservatives, some pro-Israeli groups, for instance), with a pessimistic perspective, views Egypt through the prism of present-day revolutionary Iran. Because it is the most bureaucratic and organized political group, the Muslim Brotherhood captures the state through elections later this year and eventually transforms Egypt into an Islamic theocracy. Egypt attempts to export its Islamic values, ideals, and beliefs to neighboring countries, thereby destabilizing the Middle East. It works to upset the regional status quo and puts Western interests in jeopardy. Egypt views the U.S., Israel, and the rest of the West suspiciously and sees its relations with them in terms of a zero-sum game, making cooperation extremely difficult and limited.
Unfortunately, given the extraordinarily dominating role of the Egyptian military for almost the past 60 years, there is another path that seems relevant and appropriate: the case of Algeria. Following closely to events in Algeria that began in the early 1990s, here is how this model could unfold. The Muslim Brotherhood wins free and open elections, but the secular military despises the results and blocks the rise of the Islamists. Either the military refuses to relinquish its political power or it overthrows the Islamic government. Muslim political parties and groups are banned, forcing them underground. Political bitterness and resentment and religious fervor fuse together to radicalize pockets of the Egyptian population. The country fractures along various political and religious fault lines, dramatically heightening the potential for violence.
I have no doubt that most Egyptian citizens prefer to follow Turkey’s example of a peaceful, responsible, Muslim country. But there is no necessary correspondence between what politics the Egyptian people want and the type of politics they will receive. Because Egyptians have proven that they can get people to come out of their homes and workplaces and schools and into the streets and public squares, they do have some political power right now–the power of protest and demonstration. As a result, they will surely play an important role moving forward.
But for now, Egyptian civilians are not running the state, nor do they have formal access to policymaking channels. For at least the next six months, the military will be the primary actor that molds and shapes Egyptian politics. And it is far from certain the military will cede power to another group, let alone to Islamic political parties. Furthermore, keep in mind that the military has not only domestic concerns but also regional and international pressures and incentives to behave in certain ways (e.g., upholding military might, thwarting terrorism, preserving regional stability), some of which can undermine internal openness and freedom.
What will happen? The answer to this question will be determined by a host of factors that are internal and external to Egypt. Arguably, the most important one will be the cycle of civil-military decisions and responses that are beginning today and will unfold over the next several months. Will both sides work to engender trust and reciprocation and peaceful co-existence? Or will they entrench hostility and fear and greed? Ultimately, the outcomes of these interactions will go a long way toward telling us which path Egypt will ultimately follow. It is good thing that the military and youth groups and the so-called "Wise Men" have already met and exchanged ideas. Let us hope that these conversations become an institutionalized part of Egyptian politics so disagreements (which will inevitably surface) do not become intractable and fester over time.