By Jon B. Alterman
Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power does little to address the fundamental issues that brought protesters to Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the past 18 days. In fact, their protests were never about Mubarak but about a sclerotic political system and an economic system that was full of cronyism and corruption.
Mubarak sustained that system, but its backbone was always the Egyptian military. Mubarak nurtured the military, from which he came, and the military preserved him. Although the officers behind Egypt’s 1952 revolution abandoned their uniforms long ago, Egypt’s rulers have been generals in suits for decades.
The return of the uniforms to power does not inspire great optimism about Egypt’s trajectory. In superficial ways, it represents a victory for the protesters and a demonstration of people power in the heart of the Arab world. After all, it was unthinkable even two weeks ago that Mubarak would relinquish the presidency, and those calling for his ouster – as some Egyptian activists had been doing for years – seemed quixotic dreamers.
Against all odds, this thinking goes, the government has moved to fulfill the protesters’ demands.
But in a more important way, the army’s return suggest a huge step backward. Military rule does not allow for bargaining between interest groups, nor does it presage a constitutional convention between an array of actors in Egyptian political life. Rather, it suggests even heavier management of the political process, on the one hand, and the removal of any timeline for change on the other.
For those thinking strategically about the protest movement, the rise of a military rule is a double defeat, simultaneously narrowing the bounds of allowed public behavior and depriving the protest movement of its urgency.
If Egyptians are not sleeping soundly tonight, the rulers of neighboring countries will be. Their worst-case scenario was a democratic uprising in Egypt that was both fundamental and telegenic, thereby serving as an inspiration to publics from Morocco to Oman. The rise of Egypt’s military is a victory for the forces of order, a steadying of the status quo.
For Western governments, events in Egypt are a decidedly mixed blessing. For the United States in particular, which has long had close ties to the most senior Egyptian leadership, the military’s heightened role means that familiar faces will be making the important decisions. Yet the White House has made clear publicly and privately that it viewed changes in Egypt as harbingers of an inescapable change sweeping the Middle East. Whereas some predicted as recently as Thursday that Egypt was moving forward, with the rise of the Military Command Council Egypt seems to have reverted to 1952.
Mubarak was always a cautious leader. He cherished stability so much that conditions in Egypt often veered toward stasis. The events since Jan. 25, especially the widespread protests in recent days, were precisely the environment he was seeking to prevent.
The way to see his departure, then, is not as a victory for the demonstrators calling for his removal. Instead, it is a defeat for the Egypt Hosni Mubarak was trying to maintain.
Mubarak moved deliberately to improve the lot of his compatriots, carefully avoiding risk. He rarely wore his military uniform, seeking to project an image of normality to Egypt’s public and the world. He saw and portrayed himself as a great statesman of the region, counseling presidents and kings half his age.
And yet, Egypt never quite reached normality. Mubarak never felt sufficient comfort to lift the emergency law in force in Egypt almost continually for four decades, and he never was able to establish a civilian leadership that could take the place of the army. Long accused of being an unimaginative bureaucrat, he is turning over the country to like-minded septuagenarians who mirror his caution.
It is not at all clear that the reins in Egypt have been handed to a confident country. Instead, Mubarak has turned over control of a country desperate not to slide into chaos. Egypt is a distressed asset. That is not a glorious legacy after decades of rule.