Skip to main content

Three keys to Egypt's future

By Bruce Rutherford, Special to CNN
  • Tunisian revolt showed Egyptians that protests could work, Bruce Rutherford says
  • Author says three key forces that could determine future include the protesters
  • Rutherford: Anti-government forces need to develop leaders who can control the movement
  • Other key players are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, he says

Editor's note: Bruce Rutherford, associate professor of political science at Colgate University, is the author of "Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World."

(CNN) -- The demonstrations that erupted on January 25 were driven by Egyptians' aspirations for greater dignity in their lives. Most Egyptians have seen their standard of living deteriorate over the past decade because of rising unemployment, persistent inflation and stagnant wages.

They have also suffered from a corrupt and brutal police force that subjected the population to arbitrary arrest, torture and myriad indignities large and small.

These sources of anger have been simmering for some time. The events that caused them to boil over were the demonstrations in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of that country's long-serving dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a few weeks ago.

These events fundamentally altered the way many Egyptians viewed demonstrations. Before Ben Ali's departure, many Egyptians saw little point in going to the streets to express their anger. There was little chance things would change, and they would probably be beaten by the security police.

After Ben Ali's departure, many thousands of Egyptians decided that demonstrations could actually bring about meaningful change and were worth the risk, so they turned out in droves.

Fareed Zakaria's must-read on Egypt
President Obama talks Egypt crisis
Egypt's state brutality
Palin: Egypt's call to Obama dropped
Real change in Egypt?

The situation remains very fluid, and the result is still uncertain. As this process of change unfolds, there are three actors who will play particularly important roles:

The protesters

Can they form a leadership that articulates clear demands beyond the removal of Mubarak and that can negotiate with the regime? So far the protesters -- who have been savvy in so many ways, from utilizing social media to creating a minicity in Tahrir Square -- have been remarkably unsavvy about the substance of politics. Maybe it's a reflection of the internet generation's resentment of hierarchy. They had better get over this hesitation quickly and appoint credible and effective leaders or their sacrifices may be for naught. Also, will large numbers of demonstrators continue to turn out?

It looks like President Hosni Mubarak is determined to hold on for another seven months. The only way this will change is if demonstrators continue to come to Tahrir Square en masse, even as life otherwise returns to normal.

The most likely way for this to unfold is for the Friday of each week to become the "day of demonstration" in which average people, who work during the week, come down to Tahrir for a day of protest in ever-larger numbers. If these Friday demonstrations steadily grow in size, Mubarak may eventually take the hint and accept an early exit.

The military

The current scenario for political transition places a great deal of weight on the military. It is expected to preserve order, supervise the opening of the political system without favoring a particular candidate or group and allow new economic policies to unfold that will almost certainly challenge some of its interests. It might be capable of this degree of selflessness, but it might not.

The reality is that we know remarkably little about the senior officer corps, beyond the fact that they are hand-picked by Mubarak and they are part of the ruling elite. This suggests that they might not be the selfless agents of political and economic reform that many hope they will be.

The Muslim Brotherhood

In political documents and myriad interviews over the past 15 years, the Brotherhood's leadership has expressed a commitment to democracy and human rights. Its positions are not entirely progressive. It still opposes allowing a Christian to serve as president or prime minister or allowing a woman to serve as president. But, it has stated repeatedly that it wants to participate in the democratic process and to pursue its goals through peaceful means. Unfortunately, many Egyptians are not convinced and remain fearful that it harbors a hidden agenda.

The Brotherhood needs to make dramatic gestures to convince Egyptians that it is not al Qaeda in sheep's clothing. A few possibilities: Send Brotherhood youths to stand alongside their Coptic brethren to protect churches during the coming weeks; invite women into senior positions of leadership in the organization; and announce plans to form a political party that contains Brotherhood leaders and Copts.

Most Brotherhood members probably consider these ideas completely beyond the pale. It is precisely because they are so far "out of the box" that they are necessary. These dramatic gestures are the only way for the Brotherhood to dispel the fear that it inspires in many Egyptians. If this fear is not addressed, it could lead much of the population to resist a democratic transition.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Rutherford.

Part of complete coverage on
'Sons of Mubarak' in plea for respect
Pro-Mubarak supporters believe Egypt's former president is innocent of charges of corruption and killing protesters.
Timeline of the conflict in Libya
Fighting in Libya started with anti-government demonstrations in February and escalated into a nationwide civil war.
Who are these rebels?
After months of seeming stalemate, Libyan rebels declared they were moving in on Tripoli. But who are they?
Why NATO's Libya mission has shifted
Six months and more than 17,000 air sorties after it began, NATO's Operation Unified Protector in the skies over Libya grinds on.
Interactive map: Arab unrest
Click on countries in CNN's interactive map to see the roots of their unrest and where things stand today.
Send your videos, stories
Are you in the Middle East or North Africa? Send iReport your images. Don't do anything that could put you at risk.
Libya through Gadhafi's keyhole
Behind the official smiles for the cameras some people in Libya's capital are waiting for the rebels, reports CNN's Ivan Watson.
How Arab youth found its voice
Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi not only ignited a series of revolts but heralded the first appearance of Arab youth on the stage of modern history.