Why military rule is okay for now.

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"The army took over. It's replacing one dictatorship with another."

No. I've been hearing this on the streets (and by "streets" I mean Facebook and blogs), but that's not what's happening in Egypt right now.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces taking over is a good thing, actually more than the demonstrators had hoped for. The options for power transfer, from bad to less-bad, were as follows:

Option #1 was Mubarak staying in power and slaughtering the protesters until the demonstrations stopped. Obviously that's the worst case scenario, but it's important to remember that just three weeks ago that was the expected outcome. It's what's always happened in the past.

Option #2 was Mubarak's early "concession" speech, in which he said he would not run again in September. He'd then have seven months to crush the movement, and anyway he's said this before. The protesters didn't accept this and held Tahrir.

Option #3 was giving more power to the vice president, Omar Suleiman, who was appointed all of two weeks ago. On Thursday night Mubarak was expected to resign, but did this instead. It was a joke.

Option #4 was Mubarak resigning and giving all power to Suleiman. This was the expected outcome Thursday night, and would have been considered an important victory because Mubarak, at least, would be gone. The people would not have accepted Suleiman as a legitimate successor but the mood seemed to be that he would be easier to oust than Mubarak. If they had even gotten this far down the list, it would be considered a revolution, not "unrest."

Option #5 was following the Constitution (which has been suspended since Sadat's assassination 30 years ago, but it does exist) and giving power to the speaker of parliament, in this case Fathi Surur, who is no better than Mubarak or Suleiman. This Post article explains the constitutional process.

Option #6 — and this is what happened — was Mubarak and Suleiman both stepping down and interim power being handed over to another person or organization while activists worked on developing political parties and the political process. The question was who? ElBaradei's name came up a lot in the Western press, but he's been living in exile for years and he's not this Nelson Mandela figure for Egyptians. They also could have also chosen Amr Moussa or one of the heads of parties who've run against Mubarak in the past, like Ayman Nour. But it was unlikely that Mubarak would appoint a former rival, and even if he had, it would have caused problems later as parties begin to move towards democratic reform. If the new head of the government had long-term political ambitions, he'd be tainted by being Mubarak's hand-picked successor, and without a working constitution or functioning parliament there'd be no check on his power.

The army is distinct from the police. Most of the violence in the past weeks has come from the police, who are trained by and loyal to the regime. The army is much larger, comprised of men from all over Egypt, since all Egyptian males do military service. The leaders of the demonstrations communicated early with the military's top brass, agreeing to peaceful protests and asking the army not to fire on the people. The army did not always comply and there are reports that they've been responsible for some of the human rights abuses, including torture, of demonstrators. As a body, though, they remained officially neutral throughout the conflict, which was one of the first signs that Mubarak was on his way out. He called in the army to "restore the peace" after the police presence wasn't sufficient to stop the protests, but this was welcomed by ordinary Egyptians, who saw the army as being of-the-people. Demonstrators greeted soldiers with "my son" and "my brother" and asked for help in stopping the looters (i.e. government-paid thugs). Although the military wasn't on the side of the demonstrators, the fact that it wasn't against them was astonishing to outsiders like me who were watching this all go down, but Egyptians themselves didn't seem surprised and in fact keeping the army neutral was part of the official coordination by activist groups like April 6.

Most importantly, the Supreme Council is a group, not a person, and it has no political ambitions the way a single individual would. They announced this morning that they would be meeting the demonstrators' demands, including the formation of a transitional government and holding free elections to form a civilian government. They also said they will honor all existing international treaties, including peace with Israel. Of course these may be modified by whatever new government comes in, but it's a positive sign for now because it shows the military understands its place isn't to be making political decisions.

This entire situation is atypical. Usually when an army takes over a government it's because the revolution was orchestrated by the military itself. In this case, the military was caught off guard, and have only stepped in at the request of Mubarak and with the consent of the people. If, in a few weeks or months from now, some of its leaders get power-mad and decide use their positions to reinforce the status quo, then you can talk about military dictatorship. Right now, though, that's not what's going on.

ETA: Why Mubarak is Out — A detailed analysis of the many different players in Egypt's security state

One Response to “Why military rule is okay for now.”

  1. After Mubarak: What Roads Lead to Democracy? « Kittywampus Says:

    […] KufiGirl, an Egyptian-born Ph.D. student living in Boston, explains that the army's leadership…. It avoided a Tiananmen-style bloodbath while removing Mubarak from power and clearing the way for new leadership untainted by association with the old regime. KufiGirl makes the important point that in most military coups, the army actively seeks and seizes power. That's not what happened in Egypt. The army had leadership thrust upon it with the consent of the people. Like Amar, she, too, is hopeful: Most importantly, the Supreme Council is a group, not a person, and it has no political ambitions the way a single individual would. They announced this morning that they would be meeting the demonstrators' demands, including the formation of a transitional government and holding free elections to form a civilian government. They also said they will honor all existing international treaties, including peace with Israel. Of course these may be modified by whatever new government comes in, but it's a positive sign for now because it shows the military understands its place isn't to be making political decisions. […]

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