The army will ultimately triumph in Egypt
Many people assume that the events in Egypt over the last 18 days are a simple case of ‘people power’ seeking to remove a drained, corrupt, unpopular president, who is desperately clinging to power. Certainly the renewed vigour and importance of the Arab ‘street’, and the power of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, have been important.
But what is really happening is a three-way tussle over the future political and economic structure of Egypt.
The protesters in Tahrir Square – and now across many cities and large towns in Egypt – and Mubarak, are indeed two protagonists, and the most visible ones. In one sense, the protesters have already defeated Mubarak: he has agreed to step aside in September after elections for a successor, and to the extent that the protesters were trying to get rid of the president, they have (almost certainly) succeeded.
But if the protesters are actually angry at the political system in Egypt – the unemployment, the high cost of living, the corruption, the bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, the behind-the-scenes power of the armed forces and intelligence services, the list goes on – and this is the real source of the rage of many of them, then removing Mubarak would be only a modest change.
This leads to the third force at work in Egypt now: the army. The army is happy to sacrifice Mubarak’s presidency, but behind the scenes, it is also working to ensure that the system is preserved, with only cosmetic changes, as a result of the protests. The army has several motivations. Perhaps most important, it sees itself as the guarantor of a secular, modernising, pro-Western state: it has been the key political institution in Egypt for around a century, and every leader since the 1952 Free Officers coup has been a military man.
The military fears and will oppose anything that challenges the system; Marxists or other far-left forces are unpopular, even if many officers retain a commitment to a strong state. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention more extremist groups, is unacceptable to the army (beyond acquiescing since the 1970s to a controlled, modest Islamisation in some civil society spaces such as in some courts and professional syndicates). The military also wants to retain American aid (at least US$1.3 billion per year) and access to US military technology and hardware.
Finally, the army has its own power in the existing system. While a bright individual can sometimes make a fortune in the private sector, the officer ranks provide a very comfortable career to bright people, and the army has built up business interests and economic power of its own – farms, processed food manufacturing, textiles, etc – autonomous from the state and from the vagaries of annual budgets. The idea has been to give them some economic independence from economic conditions and to avoid corruption… but it has also separated the army from the rest of Egypt, given them a revenue and power base of their own, and delivered a certain luxury to their elite.
So what now? The protestors are furious that Mubarak did not resign when he made his national address overnight, and there is every chance that as this frustration grows, the protestors will become more violent. They are unlikely to accept Mubarak’s commitment to hand more powers over to his Vice President, Omar Suleiman – in fact Suleiman is not very popular with the protestors, and is seen as too close to Mubarak and too resistant to the change they want – and so even if Mubarak had resigned, the protests may have continued against Suleiman anyway. Even if the protests avoid becoming violent, they will continue.
What Mubarak and the army are trying to do is ensure a face-saving and smooth transfer of power from the increasingly-desperate president to a successor. The army will easily sacrifice Mubarak, but they will never allow true political change to occur unless they are absolutely certain about its outcomes and that it will preserve the army’s benefits under the current system.
The protesters need to realise this. They can stay on the streets, as they probably will, and might well remove Mubarak sooner than September if they do so. But if they are truly upset about the system, and about what life in Egypt has become, then just removing the president would be an unconvincing victory. However the problem – and the deeper threat to Egypt’s future – is that, if violence becomes the protesters’ resort now, or if they challenge the army’s core interests, then the protesters will have a pyrrhic victory at best and probably, in the final analysis, none at all.
Of the three protagonists – Mubarak, the protesters, and the army – it is the army that will have its way.
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