Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Prospects for Egypt

Paul S. Rowe, Jim Payton, Robert Joustra


February 18, 2011

Capital Commentary asked contributors to sketch what they think are the best and the worst case scenarios for the current political situation in Egypt, and what the Obama administration should do in response.

We are witnessing the most dramatic change in Egypt’s long and storied history. Western states should embrace it and support Egypt’s transition toward democracy.  In such newly emerging democracies, the transition period is fluid and unpredictable.  One significant challenge will be the attempt to reform the security services.  In the best scenario, a clear, interim, constitutional regime will respect rule of law and full contestation granted to multiple groups in civil society, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  The first few elected governments will likely be fractious, but the absence of major ethnic divides such as those in Iraq or Lebanon makes Egypt a more promising democracy.  Still, centralized authority has a long pedigree in Egypt, and even a democratically elected government seems likely to deal with a heavy hand.   In the worst case, economic crisis combined with government paralysis could mirror the breakdown of order that arose in the 1940s and 1950s, leading to renewed authoritarianism.  Those who fear a revisionist Egyptian foreign policy should recognize that this is more likely under an authoritarian regime than a broadly-based democratic one.  The Obama administration should encourage Egypt’s long-term democratization and the participation of numerous groups as a model for change in the region. 

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— Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of History, Geography, and Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University.


A Chinese curse states, "May you live in exciting times."  We are certainly living in exciting times.  Only 22 years ago, the peoples of Eastern Europe peacefully brought the most powerful tyranny the 20th century had known to an end.  The western world was shocked.  NOBODY saw it coming. 

In the last three weeks, we have also seen something utterly shocking, with the peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and then in the largest, most repressive of the Middle Eastern states, Egypt.  I read a very humble article by an "expert" who works in a Washington, DC-based think tank who admits that neither he nor any of his colleagues saw this coming.  Indeed, when the actions began in Tunisia, he was shocked when the protestors succeeded in forcing the leader to resign and leave the country.  Shaken, he nonetheless was sure that the uprising in Egypt had no chance of success, given how repressive and well entrenched President Mubarak had always been. He went on to suggest that it could happen in Yemen, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.  He doesn't pretend to know where this will go. 

But it is possible that we may see something as unexpected as what transpired in the "annus mirabilis" ("miracle year") of 1989 in Eastern Europe.  If it does, we will have lived through a couple of the most extraordinary historical transformations the world has known in centuries, all within a 25-year span.  Exciting times, indeed! 

— Jim Payton is Professor & Chair of History at Redeemer University College.


President Obama said “we’re not afraid of Muslims voting,” but I’m not sure that’s true. Mubarak has spent almost a decade keeping America terrified of Muslims voting by harassing and jailing liberal opposition and propping up the Muslim Brotherhood as his likely opposition. It was an easy sell. We’re not only scared of religious Muslims over there voting, we’re terrified of religious folks over here.

The optimistic coverage is about a groundswell of secular, democratic activism sweeping Egypt into tolerant pluralism. The pessimistic stories are about a soft military coup that will replicate the abuses of the past and placate a hard-line Islamic majority. But one of the most striking images of these protests has been the hundreds of devout Muslims and Christians in prayer.

What few of these stories suggest is the idea that religion in Egyptian society can actually be a productive democratic force. Our ironically European logic lives on in Mubarak’s manufactured nightmare: that religion is always extreme and inherently undemocratic. It is, in fact, so unstable that we would vastly prefer a secular tyrant. Is there room for rich, public religion and democratic pluralism in Egypt? That is the question we’ll see answered, and one which may prove instructive to our ailing democratic consensus at home.

— Robert Joustra is the Editor of Cardus, Policy in Public, and a doctoral student in international politics at the University of Bath.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”