February 10, 2011

Panel dissects scenarios for Egypt's future

Protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo

Protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photo by flomobile/flickr.

Top experts convened to discuss "Egypt: Regional Revolution or Local Unrest?" at a Feb. 8 Halle Institute Speaker Series panel discussion.

Rising tensions in Egypt have fueled questions about what shape a possible new political regime might take and how the north African country will relate to the rest of the world in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak's departure.

The budding revolution, with its implications for the Arab-Israeli conflict, opposition movements and the reign of social media were among the issues discussed at the panel, co-sponsored by the Goizueta Business School, the Department of Political Science, Emory Hillel, the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and the Knowledge Futures initiative.

Anti-government protests have mushroomed during the past two weeks, despite Mubarak's recent announcement that he will not seek another term in the upcoming presidential election and his appointment of Vice President Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief.

"Persistent problems of cronyism, corruption and insufficient jobs won't be immediately resolved under a new regime," said panel moderator Kenneth Stein, William E. Schatten Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History, Political Science and Israeli Studies. "Suleiman is Mubarakism without Mubarak."

Every year, 700,000 newly-minted college graduates in Egypt chase 200,000 jobs, noted Stein, director of Emory's Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

Following six decades of autocratic rule, does Egypt today more closely resemble Turkey in 1945 (on the cusp of democracy) or Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution?

Views on the Muslim Brotherhood

Michael Youssef, pastor and founding rector of The Church of The Apostles in Atlanta, grew up under the rule of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, "where every other person was a government informant."

He warned that Egypt's most organized opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was "stirring the pot behind the scenes" of the protests and would seize power if given the opening.

Associate professor of political science Carrie Rosefsky Wickham explained that Brotherhood members meet behind closed doors and offer conflicting rhetoric to appeal to both secular democrats and religious conservatives. Their official position on Israel, however, is one of "implacable hostility," she noted.

"Not only is [the Brotherhood] unlikely to dominate a transition government, it has officially stated that it will play no role in it," said Wickham, who has studied opposition movements for two decades.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to tread lightly when speaking publicly about Egypt's political turmoil, the panelists agreed. The U.S. does not wish to jeopardize its alliance with Egypt, Stein said, given the importance of the Suez Canal to the American economy.

One area where the U.S. is taking a stand is against Mubarak's media crackdown. Egyptian authorities misjudged the power of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to mobilize the protesters, said Joshua Levs, CNN media correspondent.

 "The effort to get the word out will succeed," he said. "No longer can the government prevent that from happening."

What is less certain is whether Sharia, Islamic law, can be reconciled with democracy.

 "The Brotherhood will have to decide whether it endorses human rights or suicide bombings," said Wickham. "Because in the end it cannot do both."

Watch video of the panel discussion at the Halle Institute website »

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