Editor's note: Harold Brown, U.S. secretary of defense under President Carter, is trustee emeritus at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution whose mission is to help improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. He also is a trustee of CSIS.
(CNN) -- More than 30 years ago, Egypt's external relations underwent seismic change -- from alliance with the Soviet Union and war with Israel to alliance with the United States and peace with Israel. Now Egypt is undergoing even more fundamental change, and the international consequences could well prove more far reaching.
Any forecast is mostly speculation, and mine, no exception, sees several potential outcomes. One is the continuation of highly authoritarian rule, perhaps less corrupt, perhaps not, by the succeeding layer of military leaders. Given the incendiary popular will already demonstrated, corrupt rule would almost certainly lead to massive violence, with a democratic end unlikely.
Or a smooth transition could take place by means of a new constitution written by a body including the military and existing parties (previously lawful and unlawful), followed by elections in six months' time, as the military leadership has just promised. Those parties would include the Muslim Brotherhood, about 20% of the population; Coptic Christians, about 5% of the population; and the rest secularist, observant Sunni Muslims, educated professionals, poor farmers and workers.
Managing the process of formalized elections and formation of a government will be taxing. Who legitimizes the constitution writers and election overseers? Who runs the country in the meantime? Some combinations of the military, a U.N. mission and the occupiers of Tahrir Square could provide the necessary legitimacy; the military would "mind the store" during such a process. The European Union and the United States could exert gentle influence through offers of economic and technical help. The U.S. relationship with the Egyptian military could lend both a supporting and restraining hand.
Models of smooth, let alone rapid, transitions from authoritarian military regimes are hard to find. Korea took more than 15 years. Taiwan's one-party regime took even longer. Indonesia did it more quickly, and provides a Muslim example. Pakistan hasn't made it yet, and Iran is in the process of transition into a (quasi) military regime, not out of it.
Earlier revolutionary outcomes, such as England in the 17th century, France in the 19th and Russia in the 20th, are not encouraging, but their circumstances are too different from Egypt's to apply. And the American colonial revolution bears little resemblance to those others, which were each within an existing country. In the beginning the colonists regarded themselves as English; only well into the revolution did they think otherwise.
All this suggests that the most favorable outcome achievable in Egypt might be what we see in Iraq, but without the violence -- a big difference indeed. There would be a contentious political struggle over several years to establish what coalition of parties can constitute an effectively functioning government and what rules would determine the winners.
Egypt's static, oppressive regime did less damage to the political and social infrastructure than Saddam Hussein's savage and manic domination did to Iraq's. Egypt's relatively peaceful revolution leaves it poorer than before, but without the massive physical destruction by the U.S. invasion and subsequent insurgency in Iraq. So the Egyptian polity has more to work with than the Iraqis, who took seven years to get to a fractious but legitimate government.
The Iranian regime oppressed its own Freedom Square movement, but must contend with a successful one in Egypt. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's welcome of events in Egypt was followed by a swift announcement that nothing like it will be tolerated in Tehran. Authoritarian governments elsewhere in the Arab world, shaken by the Tunisian schism, see Egypt as the epicenter for a threatening Richter scale magnitude 9 earthquake. And as usual, the regional powers will ascribe responsibility for events, especially adverse events, to U.S. statements and actions, or the absence thereof. That reinforces the need for U.S. caution.
The close relations that the United States enjoys with the Egyptian military make us a player, along with the annual $1.3 billion of support that funds military training and Egyptian purchase of U.S. military equipment. Such support, and friendly military-to-military relations with an authoritarian regime that aligned with some U.S. foreign policy positions, has been denounced as a bargain with the devil. But so far it has shown its value.
In discussions with Egyptian military and political leaders in the late 1970s, as they moved their associations from the Soviets to the United States, I and others in the Carter administration emphasized that we sought more of the Egyptian military than commonality in military equipment and plans. The training of Egyptian officers in the United States explicitly suggested that the proper nature of civilian-military relations was the U.S. example. The officers, now in their 70s, and Mubarak at 82, were trained in the USSR. But those less senior, who now or soon will lead the Egyptian military, were trained in the United States.
The American advice never fully took with the seniors in the present regime, who weren't fully exposed to it and were already set in the mold of the 1950s Naquib and Nasser regimes, with a clear line of descent to the present. But the coming generation of military leadership may have learned the lesson.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Harold Brown.