Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Change is inevitable. It is the transition that can upset your day.
If there is one life lesson we can all point to as an immutable fact, it is that change is going to happen whether we like it or not. The test for our own success, as individuals, states or nations, is how we embrace it, how we transition from one state to another.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the streets of Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities where tens of thousands of people are marching in protest — some peacefully, some not — against decades of totalitarian rule. The protests have been a long time coming, but their inevitability has been easily foreseen.
The fact that very few of us saw it coming last week is more a matter of time and circumstance than anything else. Remember, President George W. Bush saw a new Middle East drenched in democracy as one of the results of his invasion of Iraq. That didn’t happen, but whether that war had anything to do with what is happening in Egypt is an open question. The fact remains that President Bush saw the need for change. So did anyone else who understands that people will only live so long under the thumb of someone else.
There is a 50-50 chance that any change in Egypt will be toward democracy. A danger, of course, comes with such change. To a lesser degree is the danger posed by an Egyptian move toward a democracy that could include a major role for the Muslim Brotherhood, which, by all accounts, is not friendly toward the West. It is hateful of everything we stand for, including our stand with Israel. It has no use for Israel. Any role it may play in a coalition of democratic governance must be viewed with great concern.
The far more substantial danger results in the inability of the Egyptian people and President Hosni Mubarak to agree on how to transition Egypt from a country ruled for the past 30 years by an authoritarian leader. Mubarak ruled Egypt with the kind of strength that comes from knowing you have a loyal army behind you and, if necessary, in front of you. As we watch TV, almost hourly, throughout this ordeal, the question looms: Where is the army? We see it in the streets but we don’t quite know whether it still has Mubarak’s back.
If the crowds turn ugly — if the army, for instance, picks a side — using words like “transition” will be fruitless because chaos will result.
That is why the United States, for one, must be careful what we ask for or encourage. President Barack Obama has called for a transition to start now. Mubarak has said the transition starts now. The people in the streets want a transition now. The problem is one of definition.
The people — at least the anti-Mubarak ones — want him out immediately. Like yesterday. The U.S. sounds like it wants a transition over the next little while. Choose your own schedule but make sure it is significantly shorter than Mubarak’s time line, which is at the end of his term. That means he will vacate on his own terms toward the end of the year.
If there is no order to the chaos that results from a 30-year dictator leaving his post, groups who present themselves as able to restore order will be swept into authority. That could be the army, in which case the people will be in for many more years of authoritarian rule. But if the chaos results in a group like the Muslim Brotherhood assuming power, all hell could break loose.
That is because what is happening in Egypt is not occurring in a vacuum. Across the Middle East, leaders are watching and wondering what will become of Egypt. Other Arab countries are governed similarly to Egypt, and if being chased out of office can happen to Mubarak, it can happen to any of them.
The leaders in Egypt’s neighbor and peace-treaty partner, Israel, are also watching very carefully, trying to figure out which way the wind is going to blow the Egyptian government — and with it, the 30-plus year peace treaty the two countries have had and maintain to this day. An army-supported moderate leader bodes well for that relationship. But the Muslim Brotherhood, full of folks desiring the end of Israel? That could cause the kind of self-defensive, pre-emptive response that nobody really wants.
With Israel, Egypt and Jordan at peace, Israel needs to watch its northern borders with little concern about behavior to the south and east. If, however, Egypt returns to the list of belligerents, and possibly Jordan, the idea of a multiple-front attack would require a very different strategy for survival. Such a multisided antagonism, pushed hard by the Muslim Brotherhood or its colleagues, would put Israel in a strike-or-be-struck mind-set. Very dangerous. Very.
That is why transitions are so important. They allow a country time to sort through these difficult issues. Right now there are leaderless people in the streets clamoring for a change. Actually, they have a leader — they just don’t want him anymore. For them, change can’t come soon enough.
In the U.S., our leaders see the writing on the wall and are trying to stay on the right side of this historic moment. What President Obama says, however, can greatly affect what the people in the streets do or, for that matter, what Mubarak does. So when he says to start the transition now, he needs to be clear that there is time to do it in a way that promotes the best possible outcome.
As for President Mubarak? He would transition out of office in the next 10 years if he could. But he can’t and that is why he said he is out of there by late fall. Given all the things that have to be attended to during a transition in which no one else has led anything for 30 years, a few more months to get it right and keep the chaos to a minimum, and therefore the chances of the wrong leadership taking hold, seem appropriate.
If I were President Obama, I would make sure that when the world hears me say “begin the transition now,” it understands there are two words that qualify the demand — reasonable and responsible.
Demonstrators need to be reasonable because they are getting what they want. Leaders need to be responsible because they hold the fate of Egypt — and the greater Middle East — in their hands for the time being.
President Obama needs to do all he can to make sure both words get equal weight.