vendredi 11 février 2011

The displaced optimism and pessimism in the armed forces (UPDATED)

Le ministre de la Défense, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, place Tahrir.
A lot of rumors and leaks fueled the media, Twitter, and Facebook regarding Hosni Mubarak's speech yesterday. Everyone seemed to think that the Egyptian President was about to step down. He did not (he has now). How the military acted gave hint to several pundits that they were cutting down their support to Mubarak, so last night's presidential announcement was a disappointment. Then, everyone was anxious about the Communique #2. The top officers had gathered in Supreme-council format, the third time since the beginning of the current regime, without either Mubarak nor newly-appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman. That sparked a lot of speculations leading some to believe in a potential military coup. The second communique is now out and the military has not announced any coup and does not head toward tearing the regime apart. It is very surprising that so many got those two moments wrong, although careful watchers of Egyptian politics would know that optimism was displaced. The military are in the driver's seat, but that may not be such a problematic situation.

The current regime is the property of the army. The coup that took place in 1952 put in power the military and although its influence has somewhat decreased, it remains staunchly attached to the regime and holds a great deal of power. Every Egyptian president has been an officer and Mubarak is perceived as one of their own. It seems to be a detail forgotten by many, but Mubarak was commander of the Egyptian Air Force from 1972 to 1975. He has never carried out any policy that would have alienated the military's support and even when he seemed to be empowering his son, Gamal, he was careful to tie them to him. Similarly, Omar Suleiman is a well-respected general. He may come from the military intelligence directorate, he nonetheless belongs to the group. Who would believe that the army would take over leaders who are friendly to them? Reports have also mentioned that some rifts within the military. That is neither unbelievable nor surprising; yet, every military is loyal to its hierarchy, especially when it is in power.

The military have also rightly calculated that ridding Mubarak immediately would be counterproductive for them. It would force them to govern, something they do not want. It would likely jeopardize the high respect that they have managed to nurture within the people. The equation is more complicated than the simplistic motto that is brandished by some militants, "you're either with us or with the regime." In addition, they would be in charge of homeland security, a job the army is not equipped or trained to do and which often leads to drastic policies. 

That Mubarak transferred unknown responsibilities to Suleiman is also not surprising. Ever since he appointed him, Suleiman has been running the show, meeting with the opposition, talking to foreign leaders, holding press conferences. Moreover, if Mubarak is really tired of governing, as he pretended, then throwing the burden to Suleiman is a logical move. Why would that infuriate the military? Why would that bring about a military coup?

The military's worst fear is to lose the regime and hence power. The military care little about what kind of regime is in place as long as they rule it. As Steven Cook brilliantly demonstrated a few years ago, the military have gone from governing to ruling, but that is a role that suits them well. They remain extremely influential and have actually expanded their power, now holding very significant economic interests. The military are part of the elite.

That the military are in command should not strike anyone as profoundly alarming. Countries, such as Portugal, have shown that the armed forced could be an agent of change. Turkey has demonstrated that the military can be aggressively attached to a form of democracy. As long as they keep playing a primary role in ruling the country, the military can act as the buffer against any illegitimate power-grabbing. Military organizations are known for being conservative and disciplinary and they cherish regimes that foster stability in their country. It is noticeable how both Suleiman's speech yesterday and the military communiques have put an emphasis on upholding the constitution's principles. They have not reached the threshold where they consider the regime totally inapt. They believe that changes in the regime could yield an outcome that would satisfy everyone. If democracy is the regime that ensures stability in their state, then democracy it will be. Positive signs have already demonstrated that they may pave the way for such a regime. In their second communique, they promised the lift of the emergency law that has been enforced since 1981, although the conditions remain vague. They also indicated that free and fair presidential elections would take place, in addition to which they reasserted their support for amending the constitution. We could discard their commitments altogether, but they have set a basis on which work can be done and pressure can be applied.

The United States, and the European Union to a lesser extent, are unlikely to let Egypt do whatever it wants. It is a reality that many could grunt at, but the fact is that the geopolitical importance of the country leads Western powers to interfere whether the local leaders like it or not. To a large extent so far, Egyptian leaders and Western powers have been in synch to carry out an "orderly transition." There may have been some calls for Mubarak to step down immediately, but overall, everyone seems to understand the formidable risk of such a move and daunting challenges that it would entail, let alone the grave power vacuum that it would leave. It is now key that everyone works toward implementing the appropriate changes that are deeply needed to ensure free and fair elections in September, the lift of the emergency law, and necessary amendments in the Constitution.


Suleiman has announced that Mubarak has resigned and turned his authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It changes little regarding the nature of the post. However, what is extremely interesting is that the regime is not imploding or exploding with Mubarak's departure, although that may be proven wrong. It corresponds to a scenario that some experts predicted some days ago that the armed forces would prepare a honorable way out for Mubarak. Now that Mubarak is out - but not Suleiman as far as I know - it is likely that the transition will start with the vice-President in charge supported by the military but it remains to be seen. Will that be enough for the protesters? It is very hard to anticipate what the reactions on the street will be. As I write this post, people are praising this announcement.

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