| Panelists discuss the evolving situation in Egypt. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.
LEXINGTON, Va., March 24, 2011 – Egypt has stepped out onto the world stage over the past two months, and the Egyptian military has taken a lead role in seeing the country through its leadership transition. What might happen next was the topic of discussion in a special session during the “East Meets West” conference at the Virginia Military Institute.
Heba El-Shazli, a native of Cairo and a visiting professor in VMI’s Arabic and international studies departments, moderated the discussion, titled “Egypt and Beyond,” and expressed her excitement and anxiety regarding Egypt’s future.
“I have been working at the grassroots level to promote democracy in Egypt for the past 25 years,” she said. “It’s a very exciting time, but I have anxiety regarding what the future will hold not only for Egypt but other countries in the region. Events are moving at a dizzying pace, and sometimes it seems as if we can’t keep up.”
Retired Army Col. Joseph Englehardt of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., credits the Egyptian military’s relationship with the West in part with driving its actions through the period of unrest and protest. Other militaries in the region, such as Libya’s, which do not have a relationship with the West, have handled revolt with force.
Englehardt explained that events in the past 60 years have defined the Egypt that is now emerging from the leadership of former President Hosni Mubarak. The military has had a strong presence during this time but does not want to remain in charge of the political process and governance.
“Exposure to western thinking has broadened the outlook, and you have to wonder where would the Egyptian military be today without that broadened outlook,” he said. “At the beginning of the revolution, the military defended the people while remaining committed to security and stability. I don’t think we’re out of the woods on this issue, and many feel if the military were to have to use force, it would lose favor and the country would be rudderless.”
Charles Dunne, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said that societies in the Middle East region have evolved over time while governments have become more closed. Changes in the way information is disseminated have promoted uprisings and have given people a way to connect in order to change systems.
Dunne added that the United States must stay engaged in the region as events unfold to help point the way to a more democratic, stable, and prosperous future for Egypt and the Arab world.
According to Englehardt, continued financial support from the United States and others will be essential as the revolution has had a devastating effect on tourism income.
“It’s like we’re driving around in a firetruck turning the hose to where the fire’s burning,” he said. “We have to think through how we can be of the most help. It would send the wrong signal for the U.S. to make deep cuts right now.”