Egypt Over the Brink

The author of a prescient book warning of an Egyptian uprising says to expect a mad scramble for power in the months ahead.


FP: Do you think Egyptians are starting to conceive a new national project?

TO: My thesis is that we don't have a unified movement. What we have here is a catalyst that brought to the surface dynamics that were simmering for decades and that leads every single political force in the country to try to position itself for a future that is certainly different than the present. But we don't have a movement that is trying to revive Arab nationalism, or give rise to political Islam, or revive Arab liberalism. What we have is a very fluid situation.

FP: Who are the major players?

TO: Which political players did you have in Egypt before the last two weeks? You had the regime, which was effectively a merger between power, military establishment to some extent, and wealth. You had political Islam and, at its heart, the Muslim Brotherhood. You had the liberal movement, very fragmented, though recently it benefited from the momentum that the emergence of Mohamed ElBaradei has created. Then you had small players here and there.

So, what's left in the regime now? The military establishment, which commands respect and very wide support among the Egyptian middle class. The regime (in the sense of the military establishment that has ruled Egypt for the past 60 years) is actually stronger than it was before the 25th of January.

The second player, political Islam, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, has gained and lost something very valuable. What they gained is that today they're sitting with the vice president at the same table and discussing the future of Egypt. They are no longer the banned group. They are in the national dialogue.

But what they have lost is that the demonstrations that have shaken the regime have been secular and nationalist. We haven't seen Islamist slogans. The Muslim Brotherhood benefits from a strong organizational capacity on the ground, but they don't have the sophistication and political savvy and leadership to really leverage this opportunity.

The third player is the liberal movement, which is very fragmented. They are still not coalescing around one person. ElBaradei added dramatic momentum to the liberal movement, but I haven't seen so far a structure around him that can be put forward to the Egyptian middle class as a framework to rule. That certainly could happen, but so far, it has not.

I go back to who really was behind the turmoil in Egypt of the last two weeks. It was the middle class that was at the center, the core, of the demonstrations.

FP: But many people think the middle class has largely eroded in Egypt.

TO: People say it has eroded, but I completely disagree. Look at the Egyptian demographics. Roughly 35 to 40 percent of Egypt's population earns less than $2 a day. And you have roughly 2 million people who are extremely rich. What's in between is the middle class -- in its wider definition.

The middle class respects -- some of them love -- the military establishment. On the other hand, there are liberals that command respect and inspire the vigor of the intelligentsia, but I'm not particularly sure they have much beyond that. And then you have political Islam, which resonates nicely with the religious middle class but is very much at odds with the idea of Egyptianism.

So my assessment is that the major winner is the military establishment, not only because it now has hold on the system but because it is the only force in the country able to ensure stability. The vast majority of [the] middle class would probably accept it because they don't have an issue with it like they might with political Islam. And unlike liberal Egyptians, many religious segments of the middle class would have some worries about real liberalism.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


Tarek Osman is an Egyptian banker and author.
Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn. Sarah Lynch is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBethLynch.


5:42 PM ET

February 9, 2011

Interview with Tarek Osman is

Interview with Tarek Osman is very informative. He talks about the middle class trying to fill vacuum created over decades, but he forgot to mention about youth momentum coming to the streets by using high technology. Another factor of Egypt eruption was a revolution in Tunisia. Mr. Osman mentions that the middle class likes and respects its military for providing stability, but how is it possible people in Tahrir square share same common values against corruption, human rights' abuses, restriction of personal freedoms. If military is such a great institution, how will it provide guarantees that required political and economical reforms take place? If the armed forces are more involved in politics like in Turkey, there will be more coups undermining people's choice. It is very important that as many as possible non-government institutions open their offices to provide alternative ideas in building civil society where no one power can take over.