Hosni Mubarak resigned from the Presidency today, and so we have now witnessed a second Arab revolution (Tunisia) in a matter of weeks. Crowds of people across Egypt heard the news they expected to hear yesterday. Victorious chants, dancing, tears of joy, fireworks, and above all unbridled enthusiasm permeated Tahrir Square. Once all of this settles down, the hard part of political reform and stability will begin–a road fraught with many obstacles and potential heartbreak.
Mubarak ceded political power to the military, which, in turn, will likely fire the cabinet, suspend parliament, and form a transitional government. Generally speaking, this is not an ideal scenario. In pursuing a path of domestic reform, countries usually strive to get the military out of politics, not enhance and entrench its role in politics. Militaries do not have a shining historical record of leading reform movements, and they are prone to aggrandizing political power. Reform of quasi or full military dictatorships (Egypt under Mubarak was a military dictatorship dressed in civilian clothes) usually occurs once the military steps out of the way (as in Indonesia, Chile, etc.).
Keep in mind that Mubarak, a military officer himself, came into office in 1981, promising a short tenure, and left office 30 years later only because a popular revolution forced him out. And for decades, ever since the coup in 1952, the Egyptian military has received enormous financial, economic, and political perks and it could find itself reluctant to relinquish them, as would be expected in a new democratic political system, particularly at a time in which its position in power (as both king and kingmaker) is expanding. Even worse, it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia, clearly worried about the winds of political change sweeping the region, will attempt to line the military's coffers so as to bolster its position in power and thwart significant movement toward openness, transparency, and free elections. After all, the Saudis were so desperate to save the status quo in Egypt that they expressed willingness to financially prop up a delegitimized Mubarak had the U.S. pulled its support for his regime.
Furthermore, the military portrays itself as a neutral arbiter and a benign force in Egyptian politics, but a further examination calls this into question. The Guardian, a British newspaper, published a report claiming that the Egyptian army has secretly detained and brutally tortured hundreds of anti-Mubarak demonstrators. Relatedly, we know that the military had manned openings into Tahrir Square, purportedly to keep the protesters safe and secure, yet allowed pro-Murbarak thugs armed with weapons and knives to enter and cause chaos and violence.
Granting the military more power is what happens when a police state opens up rapidly. In these instances, we find very few credible, effective domestic political institutions and virtually no organized political groups able find an audience and supporters and articulate its policy interests and preferences. What has filled the power gap in Egypt is the military, which, despite its flaws, is the only institution that is respected enough to take the levers of power for a transition period.
The best hope right now is that the military keeps its word that Egypt is firmly on the road (however long) to democracy. As a first order of business, the military must permit and nurture an environment conducive to political change, starting by granting and protecting freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press, among other things. It is these things that provide the foundation of a (classically) liberal democratic order.
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