- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2011

The United States faces many dangers in the Middle East with the eventual departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Washington analysts said Thursday, as chaos swept the streets of Cairo in a second week of massive demonstrations.

“The possibility that we’ve lost a reliable proxy in the Middle East looms very large,” Joshua Foust, a former U.S. defense intelligence official, told The Washington Times. “It’s almost impossible for us to come out of this looking good.”

Edward M. Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, added that America’s best Arab ally for nearly 30 years has been “an important rock and foundation for us in pursuing our agenda in the region.”

If Mr. Mubarak is forced from office before his promised retirement in September, a power vacuum could be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed movement hostile to Israel, the United States and the West.

“There’s a lot of concern in town right now about what might happen if the Brotherhood ends up in charge,” said Mr. Foust, now a scholar at the American Security Project, a Washington think tank.

Another possible scenario is that the Egyptian army, a widely respected institution, will step in and form a transitional government to prepare for free and fair elections. However, most analysts speculated on the downside of the outcome.

Mr. Gabriel said a loss of Mr. Mubarak would affect the future of already stalled Arab-Israeli peace talks.

An anti-American government replacing him would also strangle U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region, he warned.

“Depending on who gets in, we might have to reconsider the way we share intelligence and work together on counterterrorism,” he said.

Another scenario sees Mr. Mubarak trying to hang on to power until the scheduled September elections, defying his opponents in the streets and President Obama, who has called for him to begin a transition to an interim government “now.”

For him to cling to power would “require a huge and ugly crackdown” by security forces, said Mr. Foust.

“We do not benefit when Mubarak oppresses his people. … It lends credibility to the [Islamic] extremists.”

Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations added, “It will have a chilling effect in many respects.”

She worried that “a key strategic [U.S.] ally in turmoil, in chaos” would have a rippling affect on other issues in the Middle East.

“You can see inaction and inertia setting in on these other issues as so much energy and attention and bandwidth is sucked up,” she added.

Mr. Mubarak has also been a key U.S. ally in opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, and Mr. Gabriel believes Egypt would retain that position if a moderate government replaces him.

“I don’t see that changing because I don’t think the army or the political elite … has any doubt where their interests lie,” he said.

If Mr. Mubarak does hang on, the United States should clearly call for him to step down, Khairi Abaza, a former senior official of Egypt’s opposition Wafd party, told The Washington Times.

Encouraging Mr. Mubarak to stay, even tacitly by remaining silent, would be like “betting on [Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista” in the 1950s,Mr. Abaza said.

“Right now there’s an opportunity to start a new relationship,” Mr. Abaza, now a scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, added.

“The longer we wait, the more likely it is that the Egyptian man on the street will see the United States as supporting the dictatorship.”

Regardless of the scenario, analysts agreed that Egypt will be changed forever.

“Things cannot go back to the way they were,” Mr. Abaza said. “This is the Berlin Wall.”