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Adrift on the Nile
It is hard to believe today, but just four years ago, the Arab world seemed on the brink of dramatic change. During the so-called Arab Spring of early 2005, Iraqis went to the polls for the first time since the demise of Saddam Hussein, Syria withdrew from Lebanon after one million protesters descended on central Beirut, and Saudi Arabia staged municipal elections. In Cairo, activists from across the political spectrum, having grown more confident and savvy, forced the regime of President Hosni Mubarak to cast itself as reform-minded, which loosened the reins on the opposition. The editorial pages of Western newspapers were asking triumphantly if the Middle East had finally arrived at that mythic tipping point.
Within the Bush administration, however, there was detectable unease, particularly when it came to the developments in Egypt. U.S. officials were worrying about how to react, not because they questioned President George W. Bush's "forward strategy of freedom" but because political transformation in Egypt presented a policy puzzle with no simple solution. On the one hand, Mubarak and his associates were profoundly unpopular; on the other, the opposition was thin on democrats and liberals and heavy on leftists, Nasserists, and Islamists, all deeply opposed to the United States. More broadly, the opposition was divided along fault lines that had vexed Egyptian politics for six decades. It was difficult to believe that these groups, acting alone or in a coalition, could dislodge Mubarak.
Since the July 1952 coup in which Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers dislodged King Farouk I, the central question confronting Egyptians has been, what should the state's central ideology be? At first blush, the answer seems obvious. Soon after seizing power, the Free Officers abandoned their plans to reform Egypt's political system in favor of a new order based on nationalism and an ill-defined variant of socialism, and they quickly established unrivaled authority, which their descendants still exercise today. Yet contemporary Egyptian leaders have repeatedly had to fend off deeply attractive alternatives to the regime built by the Free Officers. With the Egyptians preparing for an inevitable transition -- this year, Mubarak will celebrate his 81st birthday and the 28th anniversary of his rule -- the competition is on the upsurge. The main contender, as ever, is the Islamist movement.