Egypt’s political crisis has entered a critical phase. President Hosni Mubarak has refused to back down. So have the protesters occupying Cairo’s central Tahrir (Liberation) Square. They have rejected Mubarak’s vague concessions and are unimpressed by his fast-forwarded succession plan. Mubarak appointed former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to the vice-presidency, a post that had stood vacant since Mubarak’s own ascent from it 30 years ago. With carrots failing, Mubarak turned to signature brutality. On February 2, the regime mobilised party faithful, plain-clothed security men and paid thugs under the guise of ‘pro-Mubarak demonstrators’ to engage the pro-democracy movement in bloody street battles.
The mayhem prompted the White House to speak in support of the protesters and demand that Mubarak immediately begin a political transition. Perhaps haunted by the ghosts of Tehran in 1979, Washington realises that once political transition becomes inevitable it is better managed by military brass from above than forced through the streets. Tellingly, Egypt’s top soldiers, Chief of Army Staff Lt General Sami Annan and Defence Minister (and now also deputy prime minister) Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi spent all of last week in Washington.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Elbaradei, former head of the International Atomic Agency turned leader-of-the-moment for the pro-democracy movement, prompted the army to give up its ‘neutrality’ and intervene on the side of the protesters. Though essentially pragmatic, the move also reflects the military’s popular legitimacy. After all, the Egyptian Republic was founded in a military coup against the British-backed monarchy. Its legend grew during the Suez Crisis in 1956 when it battled the combined forces of Britain, France and Israel. It took a beating from Israel’s surprise attack in 1967, but in 1973 it made Egypt the only Arab country, at that time, to recover territory — the Sinai Desert — occupied by Israel. Though hardly a complete historical record, this view informs popular perception of the military in Egypt.
But the Egyptian military is far from a pro-democratic or even a ‘neutral’ force. Rather, it is the core around which the autocratic Egyptian state has been wound for many decades. All of the Egyptian Republic’s leaders, including Mubarak, have come from within its ranks. Yet the conundrum faced by the military, and by Washington, is that Mubarak’s rule and the political model he represents have become unpalatable in the face of popular unrest. The question for the military is how to effect a transition that will maintain stability, preserve its considerable power and privilege and deliver the foreign policy that Washington craves and generously rewards.
So far, the military has allowed a situation of controlled anarchy. It is already deployed and poised for martial law but is waiting for an opening where enough Egyptians will accept its intervention as necessary. The military will not allow instability indefinitely, again to avoid losing the initiative to the streets. Elbaradei’s call for military intervention and a seeming go-ahead from the military’s American patron are quickly preparing the ground for a coup.
Though right now the military does not wish to appear as Mubarak’s stooge by acting against protesters, it may take a very different tack once it delivers on the peoples’ demand for Mubarak’s ouster. Another key danger for Egypt’s nascent revolution is that many may see Mubarak’s ouster as enough. But Egypt’s real shackles are the military-backed autocratic system; ‘Mubarakism’ as opposed to Mubarak. A democratic Egypt will require continued popular pressure during the transition phase against a military that is already anxious to retain the decades-old state structures that are the wellspring of its political strength.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2011.