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Protest in Cairo. (AP)

Apres Mubarak, no deluge

COMMENTARY | February 05, 2011

American journalists shouldn't cast the Egyptian president as the last bulwark against chaos and Islamic theocracy, says a Middle East scholar. Indeed, there are many reasons to be optimistic about how things will unfold once he leaves.

By Dan Froomkin
There is no reason for American journalists to accept the premise that President Hosni Mubarak is the only thing standing between chaos and/or Islamic theocracy in Egypt.
So says Bruce Rutherford, a political science professor at Colgate University. Everyone seems to be imagining what post-Mubarak Egypt will look like these days, but Rutherford was gaming it out years ago for his 2008 book, Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World.
Mubarak’s insistence that there would be chaos if he resigned is in fact “a very inaccurate portrayal of contemporary Egypt,” Rutherford said.
Mubarak, in that way, would have us believe that he is another Saddam Hussein and Egypt is another Iraq. “The state really did collapse once Saddam left,” Rutherford said. “But Egypt is a very different place.”
Egypt has a constitution that, among other things, establishes an order of succession. There’s also a strong and independent judiciary.  And there’s a powerful, established police force and military.
At the same time, observers don’t seem to fathom the populace’s profound lack of appetite for another authoritarian regime, Rutherford said.
Rutherford noted that pundits such as Thomas Friedman seem to think that the Mubarak regime is on one end of the political spectrum, the Muslim Brotherhood is on the other, and there is nothing in between.
But Egypt is not another Iran -- and the Muslim Brotherhood is not another Ayatollah Khomenei waiting to establish an Islamic theocracy.
 “There is a liberal tradition in Egypt of people who support strengthening the rule of law, constraints on state power, and the notion that government is accountable to the people,” he said. “I don’t think they’d support any kind of theocracy.”
As for the Brotherhood:  “It’s a middle class institution. Its leaders are lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on, who have in a very careful and systematic way over the last 15 years, debated how to reconcile the principals of Islam with democratic governance and have come up with thoughtful ways to do that.”
Indeed, Rutherford said, the Brotherhood has put forth arguments based on the Koran and other Islamic texts that laws should come from an elected parliament; that the Koran puts forth general principles of government, while the details need to be up to the people.
All in all, he said: “I think there’s more cause for optimism about how the political debate will unfold.”
Yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s name alone is enough for some members of the media to cast them as the boogeymen in this story; so when talking about them, news anchors -- and not just on Fox News -- tend to use their scariest intonations, make grave sounding insinuations, and ask leading questions about their intentions.
Defenders of Israel do have some legitimate cause for concern about Mubarak’s succession, Rutherford acknowledged. For instance: “The Brotherhood has said that if they were somehow to come to power -- and I don’t think that’s going to happen -- they would submit the Camp David accords to a referendum.”
But  Rutherford said he is confident that “if Egyptians had to sit down and decide: Do we want to go with Israel again?” the would choose not to. “ They don’t want to fight a war.”
Rutherford’s book came out in 2008, when Mubarak turned 80.  “At some point, the book title was going to be right,” he said.
And it wasn’t just that Mubarak was old. Rutherford saw that the pillars of the regime were eroding, including the economic and ideological tools that allowed it to maintain power.
 “It was just a matter of time,” he said. “The thing that nobody could anticipate was Tunisia.” Tunisia’s example showed that “if you demonstrate, you might accomplish something”.
So what now? Well, the constitution’s order of succession requires that if the president leaves permanently, his successor is the speaker of Parliament; if he leaves temporarily, the vice president can take over.
With Mubarak having now placed a loyalist, Omar Suleiman, in the vice presidency, the only trick is figuring out a way to make Mubarak’s departure temporary as far as the constitution is concerned, while permanent in every other way, Rutherford said.
“The only way to get Mubarak to leave is if you can persuade him that power will go to someone who he trusts.”

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