'Mubarak: Step down or risk radicalizing opposition'

Experts say Muslim Brotherhood's influence will rise if stalemate continues: "The longer it takes, the more radical it becomes."

Egypt no to mubarak_311 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Egypt no to mubarak_311
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Egyptian President Husni Mubarak must step down or transfer most power to his vice president, otherwise he risks radicalizing what has so far been a moderate and largely secular protest movement, a group of Middle East experts warned.
The crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo are largely middle class, well-educated people that took to the streets out of economic distress and a sense that Egyptian society is distributing the benefits of economic growth inequitably, agreed most of the experts in a panel at the Herzilya Conference, an annual gathering of international policy makers. 
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But the opposition's complexion could change if their demands continue to be unanswered.
"The longer it takes, the more radical it becomes -- the violence, the distrust. The radicalization of the crowd is becoming a danger," said Sherif el Diwany, an Egyptian who is senior director for the Middle East and North Africa for the World Economic Forum. "It would be wise if [Mubarak] delegated his power to the vice president."
Mubarak's government appointed a new cabinet and has agreed to discuss political reforms with the opposition, whose protests have paralyzed Egypt since January 25. But he has refused to meet the protestors' key demand that he step down immediately, saying he must stay in office until September elections to ensure an orderly transition.
Tahrir Square was relatively quiet on Thursday, but Reuters reported that a protester was killed and several suffered gunshot wounds in clashes with police in a desert province far from Cairo earlier this week, the first serious confrontation since the so-called Day of Wrath on January 28 led to the army's deployment on the streets.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
One possible source of radicalization is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's biggest opposition group but was late in joining the mass protests. El Diwany cited estimates that the Brotherhood had the support of about 20% of Egypt's population but that number could grow if frustrations among opposition members build up. 
Israel Elad-Alterman, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Israel's Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center, warned that if Mubarak's National Democratic Party is disbanded, many of its officials may be tempted to jump ship to the Brotherhood as the most likely candidate to become the new party of power, thereby preserving their status and position.
"There is a very real scenario of the Brotherhood taking power," Elad-Alterman said. "They have more supporters and more voters than all the other opposition parties put together."
The Al-Jazeera television network, however, isn’t a serious factor inflaming the Cairo street, even if its reporting is intense, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. 
"The Al-Jazeera angle is much talked about," he said. "They do have a profound influence on the Arab media and the Arab masses. But in this case they are just catching the wave."
He added that observers shouldn't discount ordinary people's sense of "hopelessness and lack of dignity" as the factors that have created the turmoil in Egypt and elsewhere. Shaikh said he knew of at least five young professionals in Egypt that had disappeared since the protests began.
While the protests in Egypt and elsewhere around the Middle East have focused on demands for political change, most of the experts agreed that the timing and underlying cause of the unrest can be laid to a growing gap between the rich and poor and to the lack of economic opportunities.
Yawning inequality rendered relatively strong economic growth rates in much of the Arab world irrelevant since not only the poor but much of the middle class wasn't benefiting from it, said Riad al Khouri, a Jordanian economist and a member of the international council of Questscope, a non-profit organization helping marginalized people in the Middle East become more productive citizens.
"The stagnation has been profound over the last year or two, and this is one of the major reasons for the crisis," he said.
Nevertheless, not all the countries of the Arab world are at risk for the kind of turmoil experienced by Tunisia and Egypt. Al Khouri said that his own country, Jordan, had been shaken by protests he didn't believe the government was seriously threatened.
Judith Miller, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former New York Times reporter, said Morocco was another country unlikely to be swept up in the unrest. Morocco has slashed its poverty rate by 40% over the past decade and it enjoys a broader based civic society than much of the Arab world, she said, noting the country counted 40,000 non-government organizations.
"They like their king and the king has extraordinarily religious legitimacy as commander of the faithful," Miller said. "He doesn't have to explain his right to rule Morocco, which is a fair conservative culture."