Egypt: The Road Ahead

The path the Egyptian people now find themselves on is still an uncertain one. But they could hardly be more enthusiastic in their hope that it will lead to democracy. Our Cover Story features two reports, first by Martha Teichner:

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, they celebrated the victory handed to them when Egypt's military took control on Friday.

"Finally, we get our freedom," said one Egyptian.

But are they really home free? Or is this just a lull before the next Mubarak strong-arms his way into power? Is the military capable of steering the ship to a real democracy?

"That is the biggest question in Egypt right now," said Steven Cook, an expert on Egypt's military at the Council on Foreign Relations.

History suggests otherwise. But there are millions of people in the streets of Egypt demanding that.

In its 5,000-year history, from the Pharoahs right up to the present, Egypt has had one authoritarian ruler, conqueror, oppressor after another.

The Assyrians . . . the Persians . . . Alexander the Great . . . the Romans . . . Napoleon. And in modern times, the Ottomans, the French, and the British.

In 1919, the Egyptians rose up in protest, even women - just as we've seen these last three weeks - and for the briefest of periods the country inched toward democracy.

"It wasn't entirely as we would describe a western democracy," said Princeton professor Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. "But there were political parties, and there was a debate. It was under the tutelage of a king."

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But King Farouk, more interested in his lavish lifestyle than in governing, was overthrown in a military coup.

"As the Farouk dynasty came to an end, in 1952, largely as a result of terrible corruption, mismanagement and profligacy, the military took over and was seen in the first instance as a new form of legitimizing power in Egypt, welcomed very heartily by the masses," said Kertzer.

Sound familiar? Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the coup leaders, came to power in 1954 and established what became an autocratic military dynasty. All of Egypt's presidents have been military officers. Their legacy: stability, but at a high price..

When Nasser died in 1970, his successor, Anwar al Sadat, won the Nobel Prize for making peace with Israel, but resorted to repression at home to crush political turmoil. He was assassinated in 1981.

The man at his side that day was Hosni Mubarak, who immediately imposed a state of emergency which is still in effect.

"One would have thought that Mubarak would have learned a lesson," said Kertzer. "When he entered power he was seen as a modest man, having come up through the military from middle class roots. But over time, the same authoritarian tendencies grew within him and solidified within the system."

Although the soldiers in Tahrir Square, conscripts, tended to sympathize with the demonstrators, members of Egypt's military elite have a remarkable and lucrative interest in holding on to power - even as they say they'll relinquish it.

"They control an empire of firms and businesses that do everything from bottle spring water to build kitchen appliances, to agri-business, aviation services, security services, tourism," said Cook. "They operate resorts. This is a big conglomerate."

Clean up is underway in Tahrir Square now. But of course, it could become Revolution Square all over again, if Egyptians aren't satisfied that genuine democracy is coming.

"The diehards in Tahrir Square, when everybody sobers up after this wild celebration with Mubarak leaving power, will be very concerned and quite distrustful of a military establishment that has been in bed with Mubarak and has a vested interest in the status quo," said Cook.

Because these people have their own vested interest in the 18-day uprising that could turn out to be a true revolution, five thousand years in the making.

Elizabeth Palmer reports from Cairo:

It's spreading.

Fired up by Egypt's revolution, protesters heavily outnumbered by riot police marched through Algeria's capital on Saturday to demand democratic reforms.

And in Yemen, too. Police there beat demonstrators calling for the ouster of their president.

"We want is to demand the rights of all people and overthrow the regime," said Yemeni student Ahmed Omar through a translator. "The president must leave just like Hosni Mubarak and the Tunisian president."

"The Middle East was the exception - nothing ever seemed to change there. Well, change has now come to the Middle East," said Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution. "It will never be the same again."

That's the HOPE of reformers - and the FEAR of repressive governments all over the region, according to Indyk.

"In places like Yemen, potentially in Jordan, Algeria, there you have leaders who do not have the legitimacy that grows out of a free and fair election, and who have systematically in one way or another failed to meet the needs of their people, and their people are going through hard economic times," he said. "That's the combination that has to be very worrying to those leaders."

Not only to them ... but also to the leaders of Western governments - especially the United States - allied with Israel.

Hosni Mubarak's police state was on the U.S. side, too, keeping peace with Israel for 30 years.

But free and fair elections in Egypt could change the whole equation, says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I think it is likely that a more democratic Middle East will be a Middle East where more Islamic voices are heard in politics," Alterman said. "And Islamic voices in politics talk about being more hostile toward Israel and less cooperative with the United States."

When asked by Palmer if the Muslim Brotherhood would work to protect Egypt's peace with Israel, Dr. Rashad Albayomi, Deputy Director of the opposition group - which for the moment at least says it does want to keep peace with all of Egypt's neighbors - replied, "Yes, we will preserve the peace with Israel only if they give up the tragedies that they are perpetrating against the Palestinians.

"But if they insist to keep the situation as it is, there will be no peace."

Egypt's interim rulers, too, say they will respect the 1979 peace accord with Israel, something that comes as a relief to Israel's government.

"Israel welcomes the statement from Egypt that the military government intends to honor the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt," said spokesman Mark Regev.

That's for now . . .

But politics in Egypt are going to move fast, as factions battle for power in the political space wrenched open by these protests.

"The dust hasn't begun to settle," said Alterman, "and how that dust settles will determine whether this is an inspiration to people, or a cautionary tale about what happens when you get rid of a government that you might not like but which might be replaced by something much worse."

This uprising was powered by the youth - who had peaceful , even noble goals.

But in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the generation that commences a revolution can rarely complete it.

And that - in the case of Egypt - is the danger.