Since I’m convinced that our administration is likely to make a total hash of whatever happens in Egypt, I offer the following scenarios of what may happen, and how the Obama administration will screw it up.
SCENARIO 1 - MUBARAK STAYS IN POWER: This is not unlikely, given his decades of experience and long-term skill in managing crisis. Under this scenario he manages to outfox the protesters, uses the Army to seemly be an honest broker while undercutting the opposition. Token reforms ensue, a designated strong-man successor takes over in the fall, and the repression continues.
How Obama will screw this up: By misjudging the political momentum and trying to make up for its earlier caution, the administration may cause the inadvertent collapse of the regime and essentially hand the keys of the largest Arab nation to a bunch of radicals.
What he should do: Emphasize the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood and how revolution is not the way to bring about change. Behind the scenes he should reassure other allied regimes that we will stand by them no matter what, but that we expect something in return for our support. The downside of this plan is that we look bad, and we’re still stuck with dictators. The upside is that we forestall revolution and don’t look feckless.
SCENARIO 2 – GRADUAL TRANSITION: Under this scenario, Mubarak has decided to transition to democracy ala Pakistan and the Philippines and is merely seeking an orderly way to hand over power while preventing an Islamist takeover.
How Obama will screw this up: By increasing demands for an immediate transition, which would create a power vacuum and lead to divisions both within the government and without. In such an event, many of the regime’s hardest cases may throw in their lot with the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Saddam’s goons made common cause with the Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists, despite being ostensibly secularist. The end result is a tottering caretaker government that collapses into anarchy with the Muslim Brotherhood playing the Bolshevik/Khomeinist role.
What he should do: Announce that the US accepts the offer of Mubarak to step down and will assist in the development of genuine democracy and fair and free elections. To keep the Army on board, announce that all future aid will be subject to Egypt meeting these benchmarks. If elections are not free, the US will embargo the regime and several all ties. This has the advantage of relieving some of the pressure, and gives the pro-democracy groups a chance to organize. It also gives the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to overplay their hand and be stepped on by the Army and the secularists.
SCENARIO 3 – SUDDEN COLLAPSE: Within days, the Army could join the general uprising, Mubarak could flee the country and the nation could be plunged into anarchy. With factions competing for power and legitimacy, the Muslim Brotherhood could step into the vacuum thanks to is organization and willingness to coopt former enemies in the Army and security agencies. Indeed, they could make a powerful case that only under their leadership can Mubarak’s chief enforcers escape mob justice.
How Obama will screw this up: By mouthing platitudes to democracy, expressing willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood and downplaying the ties of key actors to Islamic terrorism while at the same time urging restraint upon the Army if it acts to restore order and establish a strong man.
What he should do: Call for the Army to restore order and refuse to recognize any government influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Use long-standing contacts with the Egyptian military to facilitate the creation of a “caretaker” government that will honor elections in the fall, and blame violence on militant Islamic extremists. Yes, this is also unsavory but geopolitics are not for the faint of heart.
Of course there are other possibilities, but these three seem most likely to me.