Mubarak stepping down in Egypt: Was it a coup?

With Hosni Mubarak stepping down, the transfer of power to the military seems like a coup. But new lines of authority in Egypt are not clear, and the Army is not the only actor on the political stage.

Ben Curtis/AP
Egyptians in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on Friday celebrate the news of President Hosni Mubarak stepping down.

Hosni Mubarak stepping down Friday as president of Egypt and handing control of the country to the military is an event that marks a stunning end to Mr. Mubarak’s iron-grip regime. As recently as Thursday night, in a speech to the nation, he’d sounded as if he would hang on to the bitter end, refusing to give in fully to the demands of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have filled Cairo’s streets.

Then something changed. Was Mubarak pushed out by the Egyptian armed forces in a process that might fairly be called a military coup?

Well, yes and no. The “yes” part comes from the fact that Mubarak does not appear to have made his own decision to leave. He was pushed out, and the military is the only Egyptian institution with the power to push him.

Plus, in resigning, Mubarak handed control of Egypt to the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, announced Vice President Omar Suleiman on state broadcast outlets Friday. So people in uniform apparently now are responsible for the operation of the government. If that’s the real situation, it meets a classic definition of a coup.

But in many ways the military was already running the country. It’s true that Mubarak created civilian security forces to protect his regime and in some ways has lessened the military’s traditional involvement in Egyptian politics. But Mubarak was a military man himself, the former head of the Egyptian Air Force. So was Anwar Sadat. The military has been Egypt’s locus of power since it overthrew the nation’s monarchy in 1952. Is it a coup if you change the figure at the top of a pyramid you already control?

And this may be only the beginning. Mubarak’s removal was the protesters’ central demand, but far from the only one. Many have called for an expansion of civil and political rights – in short, democracy – as well. Mubarak’s turtle-like slowness in reacting to the protests may have only inflamed the situation. A week ago his resignation might have been enough. It might not be, now.

Street pushing for civilian rule

“We are in a pre- or quasi-revolutionary moment in Egypt, which means it is highly unpredictable where this is going to go,” says William Martel, an associate professor of security studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts.

Passions are such that the protesters are unlikely to accept meekly a military-run government, says Professor Martel. They will want to have representation of some sort on whatever transitional council emerges from the current chaos.

“At this point I’m not sure it matters much whether Mubarak is out and Suleiman is in,” says Martel. “The political demands in Egypt will swamp [the military’s] current plans.”

It’s true that the military now is only one of the actors in Egypt’s ongoing drama, says Bruce Rutherford, associate professor of political science and Middle Eastern and Islamic civilization studies at Colgate University in New York.

The protesters are another. And they may not be satisfied by the inclusion of the usual opposition figures and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei in any interim government. The young people who fill out the protester ranks may respect these individuals, but they want a new generation of opposition leaders in power as well.

Will constitution be in force?

A key point to watch in coming days is whether the current constitution remains in force and the military agrees to work within it, says Professor Rutherford.

“It will also be important to follow whether the military delegates most power over political and economic matters to civilian officials,” he says. “If they do both of these things, then this is, at most, a soft coup.”

If they suspend the constitution and put officers in charge of key political and economic portfolios, then events might constitute a hard coup, as most of us might define it, Rutherford adds.

It’s far from clear exactly what caused Mubarak to agree to step down, of course. Further revelations may change the way the world looks at this moment. But for now it appears that a mass uprising as toppled one of the Arab world’s longest-serving autocrats.

“It is a historic day for the people of Egypt,” said US Vice President Joe Biden Friday at an appearance in Kentucky.

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