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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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.

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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."

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