Egyptian protests: What will the Egyptian armed forces do next?

Military analysis.
Feb. 11 2011 1:46 PM

Now What?

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

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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.

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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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