Within hours of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s being pushed from power by a popular uprising, activists were huddling in cafes and apartments around Cairo, asking, “What next?”
All of them, from recently politicized young revolutionaries to labor activists to the seasoned hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, knew the task would be daunting. “Mubarak, go!” was a proposition that millions of Egyptians were happy to get behind. The “what are we for?” bit, and forging unity against a regime that had lost its figurehead but not its raw power, was always going to be the hard part.
Nearly a year and a half later, Egyptians have participated in five rounds of elections but still have no civilian government. The country’s interim military rulers, who had promised a civilian government by July, have made a last-minute power grab that appears to end all pretense of their being the guardians of a democratic transition.
Today, protesters are once more filling Tahrir Square, this time with their anger focused on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that has ruled Egypt since February 2011. But the square no longer holds the symbolic power that it did in early 2011. Then, the show of people power broke through a taboo against protest and the fear of decades.
Now, Tahrir is a sort of a democracy ghetto, a place where the military allows public rage to be vented and contained. As the thousands streamed to Tahrir the military issued a statement insisting its recent steps – dissolving parliament, making constitutional moves to cement its power and protect it from civilian oversight – were for the good of the nation.
Egypt was supposed to announce presidential election results yesterday, but SCAF has “indefinitely” postponed the results of the June 16-17 presidential election runoff. Recent events make clear that whether the winner is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi or Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, the military will remain in the driver’s seat.
“For us, really, it’s a declaration of war,” veteran human rights activist Hossam Bahgat told the Monitor earlier this week. “It’s ... closing a bracket of 18 months of uncertainty and making it abundantly clear that whoever is elected president is not going to have much power, because the only house of power is going to be the military.”
In February 2011, most Egyptians didn’t see this coming.
No more crowd surfing for officers
In the heady days after Mubarak’s ouster, “the Army and the people are one hand” was a popular slogan, with an officer at one point practically crowd surfing through Tahrir Square amid joyous chants that the military had sided with the people.
But the military has been the real power behind the Egyptian government since the 1952 Free Officers Movement coup upended the Egyptian monarchy. The unlikelihood that the military would give up its power and privilege lightly was evident in the announcement of Mubarak’s ouster.
“The president ... has decided to leave his position as the president of the republic,” began Vice President Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime head of military intelligence, as victory cries and ululations began to crest over Tahrir, “and has entrusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] to administer the nation’s affairs.”
The military has been steadily formalizing its power ever since, issuing decrees, making laws, and calling the tune on the transitional process. But only in the past month has its desire to be a permanent kingmaker shifted from suspicion to solid fact. In recent weeks, the ruling generals have dissolved parliament, granted themselves legislative authority, given military police broad powers to detain and arrest civilians, sought to place officers above civilian supervision, and effectively taken control of writing a new constitution.
While there is still a lot of faith in the military in Egypt and a yearning among many for the stability of the Mubarak days, that faith has been eroding along with the Egyptian economy and the living standards of the country’s poorest.
That gives the generals few options other than brute force if the Muslim Brotherhood spearheads mass protests.
“With how clumsily SCAF has behaved, everyone now understands that the military isn’t one hand with the people, and that’s a huge thing they’ve lost,” says Mark LeVine, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine. “After the revolution, people went back home because they trusted the military. Now, when things get bad, what reserve of trust do they have to draw upon to keep everybody quiet?”
What has been driving the military’s behavior? In many analysts’ estimation, it is acting out of fear, particularly of a parliament and presidency both in the hands of the Brotherhood.
“Clearly, the military must have guessed that the balance of power was shifting quickly under their feet, that if they didn’t make this play before the Brotherhood got elected, they’d pull a Turkey on them,” says Mr. LeVine, referring to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has sidelined the once powerful Turkish military and detained scores of officers for plotting against the government.
“[Egypt’s generals] feared the Muslim Brothers would use the legitimacy of a parliamentary majority and the presidency, and pretty soon you’d see the top generals on trial,” says LeVine. “I think they’re right to be afraid.”
At stake: military’s vast assets, US aid
The Egyptian military has amassed a vast array of businesses in recent decades, thanks to access to free land for development and an ability to cut through the red tape that freezes less-connected businessmen out of the market.
Shana Marshall, a research fellow at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has found the military has interests in more than 60 joint ventures with foreign firms in the country, producing everything from refrigerators to bottled water to refined petroleum products. The military has never had to provide a public statement of its accounts and would like to keep it that way.
Where is the United States in all this? On the sidelines. Events since February 2011 have moved fast, and probably beyond the reach of any US policy to make much of an impact.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to press hard for more democracy, because in many ways it is far more comfortable with the Egyptian military (which backs the peace made with Israel in 1978) than with Islamist civilians who are far more hostile to the Jewish state in public comments.
The US government has rattled its financial saber but is unlikely to turn off the $1.3 billion annual spigot, since the US-Egypt relationship has been built largely on military ties.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration argued that aid should keep flowing to Egypt’s military, even as a group of Americans – including the son of President Obama’s Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood – was being held in the country on politically motivated charges. If Mr. Obama wasn’t willing to make waves when US nationals were hiding out at the US Embassy in Cairo, it seems unlikely that he’d make a move now.
Various sources have claimed that Mubarak is ailing and near death in recent days. Others insist he had a fall at Tora prison, where thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated during his reign, and is recovering. But his fate is now largely largely irrelevant. Egypt has already moved far beyond him. Now it’s the generals, the Islamists, and the secular revolutionary groups that are contesting power.
Tahrir Square is filling again. As it does, it is with far more rage than joy. The military is in the protesters’ sights. Egypt's senior officers may have helped push out Mubarak when it looked like he'd lost the country. They are giving every sign of not being willing to depose themselves.
Kristen Chick contributed reporting from Cairo.