Egypt is still run by a military dictatorship
Children sit atop a tank while an Egyptian soldier stands by during a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square on January 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
May 26th, 2011
03:57 PM ET

Egypt is still run by a military dictatorship

Fareed spent last week in Cairo, Egypt talking to people from all walks of life about the revolution, the months after Mubarak fell, and America's role in the region.  I sat down with Fareed to get his main takeaways from his trip.

Amar C. Bakshi: After your trip to Cairo, are you more or less optimistic about Egypt’s future?

Fareed Zakaria: In the short-run, I’m less optimistic. But in the long-run, I remain optimistic.

In the short-run there are enormous pressures. We think of Egypt as having gone through a regime change. But it really didn't go through a regime change. Egypt has been run since 1952 by a military dictatorship. It is still run by a military dictatorship.

Mubarak resigned. A few people around him resigned. But at the end of the day the military still holds power.  They have a huge vested interest in maintaining the current system politically, financially and socially. They aren't going to go quietly into the night.

The great struggle taking place in Egypt is over whether the democratic elements of the new system have the power and skill to erode the strength of the dictatorial elements of the old system. Those dictatorial elements are largely housed in the military.

You saw a very similar process in Indonesia. The Indonesian military was very large, powerful and quite involved in business and the economy after Suharto's fall. Over the following years, it has not been easy to get the military out and to erode its power. The process has been slow. But two democratic electoral transitions later you can see that there is some rebalancing. The democratic parts of the system - the national legislature and the elected president - have gained legitimacy, which gives them power.

So while the military has the power of actual control of facts on the ground, the democratic elements develop a power of their own. This leads to a tussle.

I’m hopeful that Egypt will do as well as Indonesia over the next 10 or 15 years.

I think the people who imagine a Turkish model where the Egyptian military steps back the way the Turkish military did are going to be disappointed. The Turkish military only relinquished power because the European Union absolutely insisted on it and made it a principle of Turkey’s path into the European Union.

Watch: De-Mubarak-ification of Egypt's streets.

For 10 years the Turks were trying very hard to meet every goal that the European Union set. That was the context in which the Turkish military gave up a lot of their power. It has been hugely controversial, difficult and complicated even in that circumstance.

Egypt's ideal model should be Turkey. The realistic goal is Indonesia. What you’re really trying to avoid is Pakistan, where the military has allowed a lot of democratic processes that turn out to Kabuki Theater - behind the curtain the military actually runs everything.

What do you think about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

My preliminary sense about the Muslim Brotherhood – and I don’t say any of this with any confidence, because nobody knows, and I found that even people in Egypt were quite unsure about what to make of them -  is that they are quite strong; they are well organized; and they seem to have more radical intentions than they let on.

They’re quite cagey and circumspect about what they say.  There’s a façade of reasonableness that seems to me to be a façade.

Watch: Amr Moussa says Israel must get serious about peace.

Here I’m reading body language and listening to how they’re negotiating for seats and how they have become more and more demanding over the last few months.

But I do think there are many other elements in the Egyptian system. There is the military. There are the Coptic Christians who make up 10% of the population. There are the urban seculars and liberals.

So I feel as though it is quite conceivable that a truly democratic Egypt will emerge with a diversity of parties and interests and that the Muslim Brotherhood will not be able to dominate.

But everyone is operating in the dark. Everyone tells me the Muslim Brotherhood will get 30% of the vote. I asked a lot of people, “Where does this number come from? How did you decide it was 30% and not 45% and not 20%?”

Nobody had a good answer. There were a couple of polls that had been done and then there was an election that took place in which the Muslim Brotherhood was not allowed to run and so its candidates ran as independents. If you read all the tea leaves, 30% is what you come to. But it's not based on anything like what we would call robust polls.

So the truth of the matter is nobody knows. What you can tell very clearly is that they are well-organized and they have a powerful appeal.  Beyond that it’s very tough to tell.

Watch: Fareed's take is Egypt still is not free.

For years they were the only organized opposition to the regime, which meant that lots of people voted for them as a kind of anti-Mubarak vote. That certainly won't happen going forward. So there are pluses and minuses.

There is a very small chance that Egypt will become Iran. But there is a significant chance that the Muslim Brotherhood will gain more power and might even get a disproportionate number of votes.  And they’re fundamentally an illiberal force in Egyptian politics. Their agenda is quite reactionary. So the key will be for Egyptian democrats and seculars of all kinds to try to combat their influence. This will not work itself out naturally. It will take energy and activism on the part of democrats.

What ought the U.S. role be in Egypt?

What I was struck by is how the U.S. has gotten no credit for helping in the ousting of Mubarak, which is I think quite unfair. I think it’s understandable that people resent America's support for Mubarak over so many decades.

But the truth is it took Bill Clinton a year and a half to abandon Suharto. It took Ronald Reagan two years to abandon Marcos. It took Obama two weeks to abandon Mubarak.

And it’s tough. Things are not as easy as they sound. The President of the United States is not a college professor.

Watch: GPS show with Egypt's revolutionaries and leaders.

So when people say that Obama should denounce Saudi Arabia - which they all told me by the way - it’s not that easy. You’ve got to worry about the effect that would have on the price of oil and what that could do to the global economy and what that would do to America jobs. This is not an idle concern. This is part of the U.S. President's job description.

So I don’t know how much the U.S. can do to change views of America in the short-run. In the long-run if the United States stays engaged and tries to help economically and in building the new democratic system, it can strengthen ties.

Remember, we used to support the South Korean dictatorship and we now have a very good relationship with South Korea as a democracy. Such changes are achievable.

Watch: Mohamed ElBaradei on Egypt's future.

I will say that even though the Israeli-Palestinian issue was not the animating issue in Tahrir Square and that the protesters' principal concerns were with their own democratic rights, all of the student activists and the other people I talked to in Cairo said that if there was a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue it would enhance the America’s image substantially.

soundoff (154 Responses)
  1. KB NJ

    Very nice article – thank-you Mr. Zakaria for your efforts. One comment, though:
    "What I was struck by is how the U.S. has gotten no credit for helping in the ousting of Mubarak, which is I think quite unfair." Really? I'm not "struck" by this at all. Kudos to Obama (from a Conservative) for handling the situation extremely well, but do you honestly think Egyptians would credit the US for any of this? First, we're certainly not well liked, partly for good reason, in this region. Second, what did we actually do aside from keeping out of it and NOT supporting Mubarek? Not that we should have done more (thank-you Pres.), but we should also not expect any credit.

    June 1, 2011 at 11:02 am | Reply
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    I find it rather difficult to take anything Fareed Zakaria says too seriously after he invited the conservative airhead Ann Coulter to his show last week.

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