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Leadership in a vacuum

Egypt's protest movement has made a strong push for big changes, but demonstrators can't answer the obvious next question: Who can lead us?

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

A "day of rage" on Jan. 25 turned into "days" as over a quarter million people turned out in Cairo and other major cities even as January gave way to February. But rumblings of a movement to upset the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak began earlier: Last year Facebook pages dedicated to Khaled Said drew the interest of would-be revolutionaries. A 28-year-old Egyptian human-rights activist apprehended by plainclothes officers from an internet café, Said was beaten to death (for apparently possessing evidence of police corruption). By mid-January the "We Are All Khaled Said" page had nearly half a million followers when it announced a rally set for Jan. 25.

On Jan. 27 when police arrested and detained for more than a week Wael Ghonim, Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, it was clear there was no turning back what technology, in part, had wrought. The next day, with tens of thousands continuing to fill the streets, the government shut down internet service providers and halted cell phone service and text messaging. Google devised a go-round for street protesters. And Ghonim, who launched Facebook pages for Said along with sites for Mohamed ElBaradei and other opposition figures, became emblematic of many protesters-a father of two, educated, tech-savvy, and 30-ish-young enough never to have remembered living a day when Hosni Mubarak wasn't in power.

Authorities released Ghonim Feb. 7, but clashes between protesters calling for Mubarak to leave the country and pro-government elements mounted. Egyptians tried to return to normal life-banks, some schools, and stores opened by the second week of February-but swelling protests would not die. On Feb. 10, Mubarak announced that he would transfer powers to his vice president, a move that enraged protesters who had expected him to step down and promised further unrest. Residents know life won't be the same again, but the shape of Egypt's transition remained elusive.

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"The reality is, there is not a logical opposition figure to lead a post-Mubarak government," said Robert M. Kerr, chair of cultural geography at the U.S. Air War College. That's why street protests continued past their effective date, and why political and military experts cautioned against the immediate ouster of Mubarak-as the Obama administration wanted.

Despite international standing, Kerr does not believe ElBaradei can lead Egypt. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel laureate has spent too much time outside his own country and has not cultivated a deep popular following. Likewise, vice president Omar Suleiman, the seeming pick of the Obama administration, isn't viable either: As the former intelligence chief charged with collecting data against Mubarak's political enemies, he isn't trusted. And he has called protesters "un-Egyptian."

Kerr, who has held government posts in Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, does believe that the military offers the best hope for leading a transition-and that Minister of Defense Mohamed Hussein Tantawi should succeed Mubarak in a military-civilian coalition. "When Tantawi gave orders for the military not to go in [to stop street demonstrations], I thought he was positioning himself to be the champion of the people," said Kerr. On Feb. 4, Tantawi visited the protesters in Tahrir Square and offered assurances of protection. Afterward protesters shouted over loudspeakers, "The army and the people are united."

"Washington and Europe must lean on the Egyptian military and support the rapid emergence of a transitional government that will pave the way to free and fair elections fully supervised by the judiciary," echoed Saad Eddin Ibrahim, writing in The Wall Street Journal. Ibrahim, a former sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, took on the government for its failure to protect Christians from attacks by Islamic radicals. He was sentenced to seven years in prison but freed after serving three years, and he currently teaches at Drew University.

An orderly transitional government guided by the military may limit the role of radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. But Kerr warns that any government after Mubarak is likely to be more radically Islamic, and one that would restrict individual freedoms and apply Shariah law. That could limit education for women, for example, and radically alter the already diminishing role of Christians in Egyptian society.

The Muslim Brotherhood, according to Kerr, is the best organized of the Islamic groups: "Even if its leaders are moderate, there are enough radicals to push them toward Shariah."

What shocked commentators, including liberal ones, has been the Obama administration's assertion throughout the protest phase that the Muslim Brotherhood (termed "nonsecular actors") must be part of any new transitional government. Brotherhood elements coming to power in Egypt "would be calamitous for U.S. security," said Leslie Gelb, a former New York Times diplomatic correspondent who served in the Carter administration. U.S. calls for Mubarak's immediate removal created strange bedfellows: Israeli and Arab leaders, alike concerned about a possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, opposed a rapid exit by the Egyptian president. With Mubarak pledging in his Feb. 10 announcement to stay and protesters forcefully calling for his exit, uncertainty continued to rule.

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