San Diego scholars: Watch military for clues on Egypt future

By James R. Riffel

City News Service

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Two San Diego-based experts on the Middle East said Monday that Egypt's military will play the pivotal role in the struggle for future power in the country.

Egypt has experienced uncharacteristic strife for about a week in a spillover effect from a popular uprising in nearby Tunisia that sacked a longtime dictator.

"The military is the key institution," said Avi Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of San Diego. Most of the members of President Hosni Mubarak's cabinet are active or former military leaders, as is he, Spiegel said.

"The most worrying sign for Mubarak should be civilians celebrating with soldiers," Spiegel said.

Egypt has a huge, powerful army and intelligence service, said Babak Rahimi, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at UCSD.

However, the armed forces are split between 60- to 70-year-old loyalists and younger officers who have been trained outside Egypt, traveled to the United States and understand democracy, Rahimi said.

He said the future of the country could depend on which faction emerges with the most power.

"My hunch is there is a major debate on this in the army right now," Rahimi said.

Opposition leaders are hoping that one million people will march in Cairo on Tuesday to demand an end to Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Both professors said economic problems are playing a major role in upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Yemen.

"It's years of pent-up frustrations," Spiegel said.

Egypt made a major push in the middle of the last century to educate its populace, he said. The "flipside" is that there is not enough room in the economy for all of its educated citizens, he said.

Rahimi said many of the street protesters are middle-class citizens with master's degrees but no jobs.

The spread of information about rapidly changing events on television and the Internet show how technically literate the country's populace is, Spiegel said.

Both said Islamist groups are taking a back seat for the moment, and will face rivals for future power.

Rahimi said it could be months before change comes to Egypt.

Spiegel said it was difficult to predict a time-frame, but he did say that Egypt will be a "tipping point. ... I think if Hosni Mubarak falls, other (Middle East) leaders will fall."

   
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