Fawaz A Gerges: Egypt's generals seek ways to ease Mubarak out with his dignity intact

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The Independent Online

Mubarak's hours and days are numbered. The Americans have made up their minds and are encouraging the army to form a national unity government. The likely outcome is that Vice-President Omar Suleiman becomes the new president with the top military brass retaining key positions. This will be seen as a major victory for the opposition and the Egyptian public.

On Thursday, Mr Suleiman invited the Muslim Brotherhood to negotiations with the army and the opposition. This was critical since the Muslim Brotherhood – the oldest and largest Islamist organisation in Egypt that has influenced the many faces of political Islam around the world – has been banned since 1954 and Mubarak waged a relentless war on it.

Tactically, the Mubarak regime was right in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood is the only viable social and political opposition that could mobilise a million people and win a minimum of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats. So for the Brotherhood to be involved in talks represents a significant shift of how the regime views the opposition.

The US is playing an essential role in getting the army to talk with the multiple constituencies of the opposition. The Egyptian army wants to assert its control, but also an orderly and peaceful transition. The generals are trying to send two powerful messages to the people: that it is the most respected national institution and that it is distancing itself from the Mubarak regime. Mubarak claims to be fed up but worried there would be a security vacuum and violence if he stepped down.

It's clear that the army will fill that vacuum and is trying to find a dignified exit for Mubarak. This clears the way for him to say, "I am a man of the army, and it has assured me it will be in charge. I am proud that I am leaving you in good hands". Although the army will be in charge, the multi-faceted opposition will likely be represented in a national unity front. Yet, the opposition faces major challenges. Historically, it's been deeply fragmented along ideological and personality lines. Every party (the Brotherhood to a lesser extent) has suffered from major cleavages because of the strong personalities controlling them.

Mubarak has been able to control the country because the opposition has been so deeply fragmented. At the same time, the regime has hammered the Muslim Brotherhood. But things have changed in the past 18 months. The opposition, though divided, has found a common goal of getting rid of Mubarak.

Mohamed ElBaradei has bridged the divide between different opposition groups; he promised the Muslim Brotherhood it would be legalised and integrated into mainstream politics. The Brotherhood, with a new generation of young leaders, has decided to co-operate with the opposition. But there's also a new movement. The Egyptian people are now deeply involved in politics. What was the silent majority has now become active. It's not organised and institutionalised and what we're seeing on the streets is the middle-class: centrists, students, activists and professionals.

This is the new force that will decide which opposition group emerges on top. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful, organised group, the new active majority could tip it in favour of ElBaradei or someone else, such as Ayman Nour, a liberal-leaning dissident politician. The situation is very fluid.

We need the active majority to organise themselves and find a voice. If they don't, the Muslim Brotherhood will probably be the dominant power in the next Egyptian parliament and that could pit the movement against the army, not unlike Algeria in the early 1990s.

The author is director of the LSE's Middle East centre