As the wave of grass-roots unrest sweeping across the Middle East envelops Egypt, all eyes are on the next move of embattled President Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly rickety regime. The telltale signs, however, are already becoming apparent; even as he has offered political concessions to his opposition, Egypt's aging autocrat is steering his country toward military control.
How did we get here? In retrospect, Egypt's current turmoil should not have come as a surprise. For the past three decades, the country has languished in a sort of political stasis, polarized between Mr. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party and its Islamist opposition, the officially outlawed but unofficially tolerated and widely influential Muslim Brotherhood. Real alternatives have been few and far between. Although a number of other parties (such as the centrist el-Ghad Party and the leftist Tagammu coalition) exist, draconian oversight by the government has helped limit the country's political discourse.
Egypt's economy, meanwhile, is in the doldrums. National unemployment has hovered near 10 percent for years, a product of the Mubarak regime's chronic inability to open the economy enough to create jobs. Poverty is as deep as it is widespread: When tallied in 2009, a fifth of Egypt's population of 80 million was estimated to live on less than $1 a day. And given the country's overwhelmingly young population - about two-thirds of which is under age 30 - there is ample opposition to the prevailing status quo. Indeed, the Working Group on Egypt, an influential bipartisan group of private-sector foreign-policy analysts, has been warning for quite some time that the domestic situation in Egypt was becoming untenable.
Still, the rapidity with which grass-roots protests have spread to challenge the legitimacy of Mr. Mubarak's state has taken practically everyone by surprise. For that, Egypt's leader has Tunisia to thank. Over the span of three weeks in late December and early January, protests over unemployment and political restrictions in that sleepy North African nation led to the abdication of its longtime strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The unexpected success of Tunisia's opposition, in turn, touched off a wave of similar activity elsewhere in the Middle East - including in Sudan, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen. Even in repressive Syria, online activists are calling for mass protests. The prevailing regional sentiment seems to be: If the Tunisians can do it, we can, too.
But Mr. Mubarak isn't Mr. Ben Ali, and his response to the protests hasn't been to flee. It has been to hunker down.
This past weekend, ahead of his public pledge to step down later this year, Egypt's president made an even more telling move. He launched a major governmental reshuffle, firing his Cabinet and appointing Gen. Omar Suleiman, the country's longtime intelligence czar, as vice president. The step was a clear signal to regime stalwarts. Mr. Mubarak, after all, is himself a high-ranking military officer (a former air force chief) and his ascension to power in 1981, following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants, was widely seen as a boost to the power of the country's armed forces.
Yet over the past decade, Mr. Mubarak, now 82, strayed from this traditional power base, grooming his technocrat son Gamal to be his successor - and ruffling the feathers of many in the military in the process. The selection of Gen. Suleiman goes a long way toward alleviating the concerns of the country's military, reaffirming that their leader is committed to the durability of the system they helped create. The message to them was clear: The regime will endure, even if Mr. Mubarak himself leaves the political scene.
There's a good chance it may. Images of Egyptian soldiers laying down their arms and joining the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square have certainly made for captivating television, but those incidents are likely to be the exception rather than the norm. With the military's prominent role in the political scene and heavy stake in the national economy, an estimated 40 percent of which is linked to the country's defense establishment, the interests of Egypt's armed forces lie squarely in preserving the old order or some variant thereof.
Needless to say, these machinations have left the United States in quite a quandary. Egypt long has served as a key regional ally, and successive administrations have invested heavily in the Mubarak regime in both political and economic terms. That's why, in the early days of the protests, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took pains to publicly reiterate official support for the beleaguered Egyptian leader. As the crisis has deepened, however, the White House has hardened its tone, calling for a swift transition to "real democracy."
That is much easier said than done, however. After years of lackluster international support for real liberal alternatives, Egypt is saddled with a polarized political scene and a powerful, virulently anti-Western Islamist opposition. A definitive collapse of the current government might therefore usher in precisely the type of chaos and political disorder that could be exploited by radical forces.
That's why Mr. Mubarak is betting that, as Egypt's disorder deepens, America and its allies will gravitate toward the political outcome that best preserves the country's pro-Western orientation - and that option is still the existing regime, however sclerotic it may be. He may just turn out to be right.