War Stories

Now What?

No one, perhaps not even officers of the Egyptian armed forces, knows what the Egyptian armed forces will do next.

Soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square

Now what happens?

After yesterday’s roller-coaster ride of rumors, reports, and reversals, all of which may have reflected a palace power struggle, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has finally left the building. His hand-picked vice president and longtime confidante, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, appeared on official television today for a mere half-minute to say that Mubarak has stepped down, leaving power with the Supreme Council of the armed forces.

It was a dramatic contrast with the broadcasts of less than 24 hours earlier, when Mubarak went on TV to wrap himself in the Egyptian flag, coo to the people (“my children,” he called them), and explain, like a dysfunctional parent, that he must stay in power for their sake. Suleiman followed with a brusquer message for the protesters: Go home, get back to work, and stop watching Al-Jazeera and the other foreign interlopers.

Earlier on Thursday, it seemed a friendly coup was in the making. The military’s Supreme Council issued “Communiqué No. 1,” announcing that they were meeting continuously to deal with the political crisis and pointedly noting that defense minister Mohamed Tantawi was chairing the meeting—not Mubarak, as would ordinarily be the case. The commander of the army told the protesters that their wishes would soon be satisfied.

And then those wishes were dashed, the assurances forcibly denied. The crowds grew, in anger and size. Some protesters headed out of Tahrir Square and moved toward the presidential palace. Would they storm the gates? Would the army fire on the crowd?

Then, suddenly, on Friday, Mubarak was gone, Suleiman was subdued, and—as the protesters themselves had hoped would happen—the military was in charge.

It may seem strange to Westerners that the military might play—and would be popularly celebrated for playing—a progressive role in national politics. But in fact it’s not so unusual, especially in the developing world. The Turkish military has long been that country’s most forceful advocate of secular modernism. Even in our own country, in colonial times, the Continental Army led the Revolution, and its commander George Washington could easily have emerged as a new king (in today’s parlance, a military dictator) had it not been for his reticence and dedication to democratic principles.

Who are the new uniformed leaders in Egypt? What are their ambitions and principles? Nobody really knows, perhaps not even Cairo insiders. Mubarak had ruled for 30 years, after all. He was a general officer himself, he treated the officer corps well, and the military’s Supreme Council never had the chance to develop as an independent entity.

Now that they’re untethered from their master, who can say what courses the officers will follow, what historic figures they might emulate. Will they be Washingtons, Trotskys, Pinochets—or something altogether different? As Deborah Amos, NPR’s longtime foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in the Middle East, said this morning, “There’s no script—no research on a leaderless revolution taking on an oligarch protected by a military establishment supported by an entrenched elite.”

The military always held the ultimate cards in this contest of wills between Mubarak and the street. At every turn, the officers and enlisted men sided with the street. The protesters could not have gone on without the assurance—or the hope—that this would remain the case. Few crowds, however brave, can withstand the force of one tank firing a few shells.

As I write this, the anchors of Al-Jazeera in English (whose live feeds from Cairo have been invaluable) are reading a news report that the Supreme Council has sacked Mubarak’s entire Cabinet and has frozen several ministers’ assets and confiscated their passports. Who the officers will put in their place, whether they’ll appoint civilians from among the protesters—if just as an interim measure—is one crucial question.

Another is whether the military officers now in charge will transform the political revolution, which has just taken place, to a social revolution, which many of the young protesters want. That is, will the tumult stop with a mere changing of the guard—or will the military jump-start the creation of a civil society, with real political parties, trade unions, a free press, a thriving middle-class, and all the rest.

And can parties and interest groups—and the spokesmen for those groups—be declared by fiat? Again, we’re treading new ground here, not just for Egypt.

Only the military can get such a broader revolution going, because it is the only Egyptian institution that has the power, the organization, and the popular respect to do so. This is the case because, for all these decades, Mubarak had solidified his rule precisely by preventing any other institutions from taking form. Such groups, he knew, would threaten his rule. They would also threaten the new military leaders’ rule. The question is: Do they care? Does one of them want to be Egypt’s new strongman—or do they want to change their country?

Again, nobody can say, perhaps not even the officers themselves. If they were to liberalize the economy, they would do so in violation of their own vested interests. The military owns and operates vast commercial enterprises, amounting to about one-third of the country’s economy. A 2008 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo (one of the many cables found in the recent WikiLeaks cache) noted that the Supreme Council has the power to veto any commercial project on the vaguest excuse of “national security,” and that the council has blocked efforts at privatization “as a threat to its economic position.” The officers who turned against Mubarak may have done so because the demonstrations were harming the economy (and their own economic interests); the demonstrations would continue as long as Mubarak stayed; and so he had to go. Will they now just consolidate their power—or lead the next stage of a transition to modernity?

As for the new Egypt’s foreign policy, that is another uncertainty. In one sense, Western leaders must be heaving sighs of relief. Many Egyptian officers were trained in U.S. military academies. Through the military’s massive arms-purchase program, much of it funded by foreign aid, officers have maintained close contacts with the elite officers in the United States, Britain, and France. One implicit condition of this aid—more than $1.3 billion a year from the United States alone—is that Egypt continue to honor the peace treaty with Israel, which is a critical ingredient of Israeli security.

But some are already asking what the implications of this revolt might be in Egypt’s neighboring countries, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where popular revolts would be more likely led by radical Islamists. Many specialists say this couldn’t happen in Saudi Arabia. Yet three weeks ago, when protests overthrew a leader in Tunisia, these same specialists were saying it couldn’t happen in Egypt. Good or bad, thrilling or dreadful, transformative or regressive, revolution or counterrevolution or some hybrid never before witnessed and not yet labeled, a bumpy road lies ahead.

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