“Sometime in the next 20, 30, 40 years” an Egyptian wag speculated some time ago, “Muba-rak may no longer be the president.” Recent reports indicate, however, that Mr. Mubarak, 82 and in his 29th year of rule, is seriously ill, although official sources deny it. An Egypt without Mr. Mubarak is a potential nightmare, even if long anticipated.
Ever since Anwar Sadat chose to realign Egypt with the United States in the early 1970s and begin the peace process with Israel, Egypt has been the linchpin of American strategy in the region, as well Israel’s - the pillar of their efforts to forge a more stable and peaceful Middle East. Their relations with Egypt, however, have not been easy for either.
U.S.-Egyptian relations have been characterized by discordance no less than harmony. Mr. Mubarak has differed with American policy on Iraq, Iran, the peace process, Libya, domestic reform and more. Fundamentally, however, the relationship has held, and Egypt has played a constructive regional role. Indeed, it was Egypt that enabled the United States to square the conflicting elements of its regional strategy in recent decades - building ties with the moderate Arab countries while actively containing the radicals, promoting the peace process and at the same time forging an unprecedented alliance with Israel.
Israel’s relations with Egypt also have been frosty. Egypt has prevented any substantive bilateral normalization, and the two countries disagree over most issues. Nevertheless, the peace treaty has held unwaveringly and eclipses most other Israeli national security considerations in importance.
No other regional player can replace Egypt’s stabilizing role - not Saudi Arabia, which has never been able or willing to translate its petro-wealth into political influence; not Turkey, which lacks the influence needed to begin with and is increasingly turning toward the radicals. This is particularly important at a time when Iran and other radical forces are ascendant in the region.
Now or in the not-distant future, we will face the question of Egypt’s course in the post-Mubarak era. Will his son, Gamal, the most likely successor, or some general from the ruling junta, succeed in gaining and retaining power, in which case Egypt’s policies presumably will continue as known? Or will there be a battle for power, with the radical Muslim Brotherhood, the only opposition of consequence, the likely winner?
A takeover by the Brotherhood would be a nightmare, first and foremost for Egypt, but for the U.S. and Israel, too. Imagine the most populous regional state with the largest, best-equipped and -trained Arab army in the hands of this radical Islamist organization. Would Egypt continue to be a force for stability or, perish the thought, abrogate the peace treaty with Israel and conceivably even rejoin the conflict? Would Egypt be able to sit out a future round between Hezbollah and Israel? How would it react to a possible Israeli (or U.S.) attack on Iran’s nukes or, conversely, to an announcement that Iran had gone nuclear? Egypt’s population is exploding (81 million today, 95 million by 2025), leading to a clear danger that it will become a hopelessly impoverished state, possibly even a failed one, whoever takes over.
Saudi Arabia also faces a crucial succession. The king and ruling princes are all in their 70s and 80s, and their ability to hand over power to the next generation smoothly is unclear. A Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt, along with the general rise of radical players in the region (Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas), would have negative ramifications for Saudi stability, too.
Rarely has there been a regional issue of such importance for the United States and Israel about which they can do so little. Neither has a successful record of intervening in Arab politics, and any overt attempts to influence events might further undermine Gamal; the regime already is tainted by its relations with the U.S. and Israel. The United States already provides Egypt with major foreign aid, and an increase would only have an impact long after the succession, as would a renewal of U.S. democratization efforts. Covert operations could be undertaken to weaken the opposition, but it is extremely unlikely that any external player could do more than Egypt’s powerful security apparatus. No realistic external military option exists.
If and when Gamal Mubarak or some other moderate takes over, it will be important for the United States and Israel to help solidify his rule by affording him some early successes, but both will be highly constrained in their ability to do so. So, both are in for a harrowing ride, with very little that they can do to shape events.
Chuck Freilich was a deputy national security adviser in Israel. He is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an adjunct professor at New York University and recently completed a book on Israeli national security decision-making processes.