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3Qs: Next steps for Egypt

After 18 days of protests, Egypt President Hosni Mubarak resigned last week and turned over all power to the military, ending his 30-year reign. Two scholars of Middle East history and politics — Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, a history professor, and Denis Sullivan, political science professor and director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development — collaborated on this assessment of the Egyptian revolution and the future for democracy in Egypt and the Arab world.

What will be the longer-term effects on the Arab world?

The revolution in Egypt is undeniably a turning point in the Arab world: the wall of fear has been broken, and there is no turning back. The sheer joy displayed in the streets, from Algiers to San’aa, Yemen, following Mubarak’s resignation, has been an eloquent testimony of the Arab world’s thirst for locally generated, popular and genuine democratic change, free elections, respect for human rights and human dignity, the end of state violence and police brutality and an end to corruption.

Even before Mubarak’s resignation, many Arab leaders, fearing that the uprising would spread to their countries, had already scrambled to introduce certain reforms: in Jordan, King Abdullah dissolved the government, which was replaced a few day ago by a new government promising reforms and public freedoms; and in Algeria, President Bouteflika has promised to repeal the emergency laws, in place since 1992. The question is whether these reforms are too little, too late, as the continuing demonstrations in Algiers, San’aa and elsewhere testify.

The events in Egypt will have a tremendous impact on intra-Arab politics, as well as on U.S.-Arab relations and on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian Authority has already announced that it will hold new elections in fall 2011. Also, the long-standing negotiator for the Palestinians, Saeb Erekat, has resigned his post. And the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, visited Jordan and Israel over the weekend to reassure these allies of American support, in the wake of Mubarak’s demise.

We’ve also gotten a very important corrective to various longstanding, and unfortunately widespread, Orientalist theories, which have argued that Arabs cannot understand democracy, that they are not ready for it or that they are politically lethargic and passive.

What will daily life be like for the Egyptians and what will the daily life be like moving forward under military rule?

Daily life has already started returning to some normalcy. The curfew has been all but lifted; on Sunday it was midnight, but people continued to celebrate with friends all over Cairo and Alexandria, in spite of a deadline to be home. But there also have been ongoing strikes in various parts of the country, with calls to establish independent trade unions and continue striking until workers’ demands are met. The question remains whether or not the military will intervene to break the strikes.

Meanwhile, in days ahead, there will be the most serious of discussions about an entirely new political system for Egypt, with questions about a new constitution, a new parliament, new political party laws, new laws of assembly and speech, plans for presidential elections and a timeframe — six months, nine months or a year or more — for resumption of civilian control of Egypt.

Until such time, the military will continue to be responsible for maintaining law and order, running a massive bureaucracy, reassuring foreign and domestic investors, enabling the private sector to get back to work, promoting Egypt as a tourist destination, maintaining traffic through the Suez Canal, thus stabilizing world oil prices and so forth.

What role did social media play in helping topple the regime?

Much has been said and written about the role of social media in helping topple the regime — and the fact that the regime blocked access to the Internet for the first few days of the revolution is telling. Twitter and Facebook were important in helping people coordinate and plan for the January 25 demonstration.

Ultimately, though, it was the Egyptian people who toppled Mubarak, who braved Mubarak’s cronies and his tanks, and remained steadfastly in Tahrir Square and elsewhere for 18 days. There might still have been a revolution without Twitter and Facebook, but there would not have been one without the incredible courage of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets and peacefully and unwaveringly, fought for their principles and their rights.