The Army in Charge — February 14, 2011

Everybody breathed a sigh of relief that Tahrir Square did not become another Tiananmen.  It was all down to the army.  They chose to side with the protesters in the square rather than with their own commander.  So far, so good.  But there is a long and winding road between here and a democratic Nirvana.

One thing that is a bit disturbing is that there is as yet no visible leadership to the Supreme Military Council.  Rather, it is a bunch of faceless generals ruling as – let’s call a spade a spade – a junta, even if they so far declare it to be a temporary junta.  One of their first actions was to suspend the Constitution (no great loss, there, since the Constitution was designed to enable Mubarak’s 30 years of autocracy).  Still, right now there is no founding document.  The Council apparently plans for amendments to the constitution to be written over the course of the next two weeks (!) and a referendum in two months, to be followed by general elections in six months.

While that may strike some as speedy movement toward democracy, it would be improbable to expect a useful document in the US in that time frame, given all the competing interests that deserve a hearing.   Indeed, in 1787 it took nearly five months to draft our Constitution.  In Egypt, a country in which political parties were suppressed for years, a lot of basic organizing needs to be done even to aggregate interests properly, much less draft constitutional language.

It strikes one as hasty.  And the product of haste will be the antithesis of a stable democracy.  One wonders if the hurry is designed to result in fragile political alliances unable to compete for power and thus keep the army in charge.  There has not yet, so far, been a date set for elections.

After all, the army has a pretty cozy deal in Egypt; they are involved in some 10 – 30% of the economy – estimates vary – and they will remain a fixture long into the future.  They will be very leery of letting a government come to power that jeopardizes that money pot.

And yet, in a sense, that is exactly what is needed for the revolution to succeed.  The protesters in Cairo did not come from among the millions of Egypt’s poor, those who live on two dollars a day.  Rather, they were the young educated ones, the children of Cairo’s middle and upper class, who found themselves with a college degree and no career path.  What they need is for the economy to open up, for the state – and the army – to relax its ownership, to slash bureaucracy and its myriad opportunities for corruption, to invite foreign investment and to encourage entrepreneurialism.  Then, perhaps, Egypt has a chance to move in from the margins of the global economy.  But to do so, the military would need willingly to give up considerable power, influence, and cash.  That’s a tall order.

One of the real pressing problems will be to contain expectations.  People will want to see things getting better right away, or they will begin to feel the revolution was for naught.  And the economy is in a mess, if anything made worse by three weeks of protest during which virtually everything was shut down.  Now, workers are striking all over the place – bank workers, steel and oil workers, ambulance drivers, postal workers.  Even the police have been out there marching for better conditions (hardly the ones who took personal risk in the protests).  With the newfound power of the street, will the people be content to be told to wait?

So far, the military has been extraordinarily conciliatory, at least as far as atmospherics.  They met with leaders of the Tahrir protesters, and while little of substance was accomplished, their attitude was apparently cooperative rather than condescending.  But at the same time, they have yet to fulfill the demand to release political prisoners; they declared their first objective is to maintain “peace and security” and prevent “chaos and disorder” – the kind of language that Mubarak frequently used.  They have called for the strikes to end, with no apparent effect.  It is not hard to foresee the need for re-imposition of martial law simply to get people back to work.

Not the best way to launch the new Egypt.

The one card the US has to play here, and it is a good one, is that we have been plying the Egyptian military with $1.5 billion annually in support, weaponry, and training for years.  We have close, sometimes personal, ties.  This influence may go a long way toward helping the Egyptian army to navigate the difficult passages ahead.  Order is needed, indeed.  But so is the establishment not just of elections but the machinery of democracy – the institutions, the practices, the independent judiciary, the free press, the checks and balances.  And loosening governmental stranglehold on the economy.  All of this while the populace is restive and while the Muslim Brotherhood waits in the wings.

Time will tell.

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