It is one thing if the Tunisian dictator flees. It is quite another if the regime in Egypt is shaking. The implications of the transformation in Egypt for the entire Middle East and beyond can hardly be overestimated, the participants of the conference panel held on Saturday evening agreed.
Are the events in Egypt a cause for joy or a cause for concern? And can Egypt transition towards democracy while Hosni Mubarak is President? It was the second question, in particular, that sparked considerable debate. Frank Wisner, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy to Egypt (from New York via live conference), even seemed to believe it was critical that Mubarak remain in office: "Mubarak must stay in office to steer the changes", said the veteran diplomat, who also served as ambassador to Egypt in the 1980s.
Wisner, who was sent to Cairo by Obama on Monday, warned against a hostile attitude toward the Egyptian government. Mubarak now had a chance to write his own legacy. The Egyptian government now understands what steps are necessary, he said. At the same time, Wisner conceded that it would be difficult to convince the people in Egypt that the government was capable of change, for example, regarding issues such as the freedom of press or emergency laws.
Volkes Perthes, director of the German think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch expressed deep skepticism over the capability and will of the regime in Cairo to accept or even shape substantial change. Only the Egyptian armed forces are flexible enough, Perthes argued, because they are not primarily interested in protecting the Mubarak regime, but in protecting the state. Roth presented a simple way to solve the problem addressed by Wisner that according to the Egyptian constitution, Mubarak's resignation would require new elections within two months. Mubarak should just formally transfer his authority to a different person who could then initiate constitutional changes. This could be a way to prevent elections from being held too soon. "This can be done without Mubarak", Roth stressed. Roth also demanded to let the regime know that the United States could always cut its financial aid if the violence against demonstrators continued.
The representative of the Israeli government, National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, had mixed feelings about the developments in Egypt. He showed understanding for the aspirations of the demonstrators, but he warned of the undesired results of the transformations, in particular the rise of "radical Islam", or groups rejecting peace with Israel. Javier Solana, former NATO Secretary General and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, showed understanding for these concerns, but he also stressed that the relations with Israel had not played any role in the developments in Egypt. At the same time, Solana, as well as Osman Korutürk of the Turkish opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party), expressed a preference for a secular democratic regime. Europe could use its experience to help build a multi-party system, Solana said.
Volker Perthes also emphasized that there was no reason to worry – on the contrary. In the last 30 years, he has never been as optimistic with regard to the developments in the Middle East. The third power that had emerged in the Arab world – besides political Islam and the authoritarian secular regimes – was a cause for joy: "We should welcome the liberation movement with the same enthusiasm as the revolutions in eastern Europe."
Meanwhile, the Quartet on the Middle East – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton – met in Munich in the afternoon. The members of the Quartet agreed on further steps in the Middle East peace process and discussed the implications of the developments in Egypt. Ashton stressed that the latest events in the Arab world must not distract the international community from the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Munich Security Conference