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Analysis: Why Egypt matters

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  • Analysis: Why Egypt matters

    Objective: Provoke discussion on the importance of Egypt to the United States and the West, and the consequences of a sudden change in government.
    Analysis: Why Egypt matters
    By Roger Hardy Middle East analyst, Woodrow Wilson Center

    If Egyptian unrest turns into an Egyptian revolution, the implications for the Arab world - and for Western policy in the Middle East - will be immense.

    Egypt matters, in a way that tiny Tunisia - key catalyst that it has been in the current wave of protest - does not.

    It matters because its destiny affects, in a range of ways, not only Arab interests but Israeli, Iranian and Western interests, too.

    Egypt, the most populous Arab state, can help determine the thrust of Arab policies - whether towards Israel or Iran or in the perennial quest for Arab consensus on issues that matter.

    Above all, the Egyptian state has traditionally had a strength and solidity that made its collapse seem unthinkable.

    Even now, with so much that is uncertain, that state and its basic structures may survive - with or without Hosni Mubarak, the country's president for the last three decades.
    Islamist wild card

    If there is a power vacuum, who is likely to fill it?

    Will the powerful military intervene to restore stability?

    If they did, would the protesters accept such a scenario - or would they, like their Tunisian counterparts, keep up the pressure for radical change?

    And - the wild card that troubles Western policy-makers most - could the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's Islamist opposition movement, somehow exploit the protests to come to power?

    Right now, that scenario seems far-fetched. The Brotherhood is trying to jump on the bandwagon of a youthful and largely leaderless protest movement.
    They are not in front. They are trying to catch up.

    But the situation is volatile. New leaders - nationalist or Islamist, civilian or military - could emerge if the country is engulfed in chaos.

    Regional consequences
    • If the Mubarak regime were to collapse - which is still a big "if" - the fall-out would affect virtually every key player in the region and every key issue.
    • For Arab autocrats, it would signify the writing on the wall in a far more dramatic way than the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia.
    • For Arab protesters, it would be a great boost, fuelling the idea that the region has entered a new era of "people power".
    • It would deal a blow to an already enfeebled Middle East peace process. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, back in the 1970s. A change of regime would alarm Israeli leaders and deepen the siege mentality among many Israelis.
    • It would affect business confidence, regionally and even globally, especially if oil prices shot up.
    • Finally, it would pose painful dilemmas for Western policy-makers who have long favoured gradual political reform in the region, fearful that the alternative could be the breakdown of stability and the rise of extremism.
    • Right now, Arab rulers and Arab citizens are glued to their TV screens, computers and mobile phones for news of how the drama is unfolding.
    • It will be some time before the smoke and tear gas settle, and the new face of this troubled region begins to come into focus.
    Source: BBC News
    BBC News - Analysis: Why Egypt matters
    "Every man has his weakness. Mine was always just cigarettes."
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