Egypt: People power or coup d’etat?

While many Filipinos are pointing out the parallels between this week’s historic events in Egypt that culminated in the ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak and the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos, it must be noted that they are, in a very important way, opposites of each other: Edsa 1986 had seen a military coup that ignited a people power uprising; Tahrir 2011, on the other hand, saw a people power uprising sparking a military coup.

Notwithstanding the ensuing euphoria, the reality is that what happened in Egypt was not a people power revolution but a military coup d’état. While Edsa 1986 gave the Philippines a duly-elected government and a constitutional democracy, Tahrir 2011 is cementing military rule; the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces– a junta, for all intents and purposes– is taking over.

As a result, it remains to be seen if any of the youth, labor and other progressive sectors that formed the backbone of the protests would be included in the post-Mubarak transition. And, while the junta has promised transition to democracy, it has not given a timeframe for such transition.

So, what prompted the Egyptian generals to turn their backs on Mubarak, who was not only one of their own but a war hero as well?

It would be romantic to say that the protests touched them; but in reality, even before the Tahrir Square protests began on January 25, the military’s loyalty to Mubarak was already not as strong as we all liked to believe.

The ailing Mubarak had really planned to step down as president this coming September; but he had also intended to continue ruling Egypt even from his grave by anointing his son, businessman Gamal Mubarak, as his successor.This has estranged many in the Egyptian military because, firstly, the idea of perpetuating a dynasty is repulsive in a republican regime that traces its legitimacy to the ouster of the monarchy and, secondly, Gamal was seen as a threat to the military establishment.

“The military and state security establishment doesn’t trust Gamal who has no military experience to look after their interests. Flush with money and connections from his business empire, Gamal is perceived by the military as a Western economic tiger bent on transforming Egypt’s military dictatorship to a market economy in which they will be deprived of their governmental patronage machine and perks,” says Webster Brooks, a senior fellow at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP). It must be noted too that theEgyptian military also has vast business interests that may be threatened by Gamal’s business empire.

For these reasons, many in the military-intelligence establishment had closed ranks behind General Omar Suleiman, the shadowy intelligence head and Egypt’s torturer-in-chief, as their candidate for the September elections. Suleiman is one of the military’s own and his pro-Israel credentials make him a credible candidate for the army’s American benefactors.

And so we get an idea of the political backdrop prior to the Tahrir protests: while the fragmented groups in the opposition were trying to get their acts together; two political actors in the corridors of power, Mubarak himself and the anti-Gamal military clique, were maneuvering for the post-Mubarak dispensation. All of these political actors had been playing by the rules of the Mubarak-imposed constitution and, obviously, Mubarak had the upper hand because, thanks to his dictatorial powers, he can basically manipulate the rules of the game.

But the January 25 protests changed the name of the game itself. It tilted the balance from Mubarak towards the military.

As Mubarak’s supporters, including the Obama administration, abandon him one by one; the dictator had been forced to rely on the army for his survival. As a result, he had to cede his powers to the military: his anointed successor, Gamal, was exiled to LondonGeneral Suleiman was appointed the first vice president in decades and began to call the shots; andMubarak’s loyalists were purged from the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

At that point, while Mubarak had practically lost all his powers to Suleiman, the military clique were still reluctant to let go of the dictator because they wanted to ensure that the post-Mubarak transition would, firstly, not provide an opening for the Muslim Brotherhood to consolidate gains and be of striking distance to power and, secondly, ensure the primacy of the military in the political set-up. Mubarak’s resignation would not have worked since his constitutional successor would have been not the vice president but the speaker of parliament, a Mubarak loyalist. Military take-over would have been the solution, but the generals knew that there was also a need to play to the Western audience who, thanks to social networking and traditional media, had been glued to the unfolding developments in Egypt. After all, it is to this audience that the military’s American benefactors are accountable.

But when it became obvious that talks between Suleiman and the protesters were not going anywhere– partly because Suleiman was seen already as a Mubarak loyalist– and when the protesters began to march towards important installations such as the parliament, the state TV and the presidential palace itself; the military knew that it had no choice but to send Mubarak packing. Amidst Mubarak’s defiant refusal to step down, the military’s supreme council convened and announced it was assuming the government’s powers. Hours later, Suleiman announced that Mubarak’s resignation and the military take-over.

This was greeted by jubilation not just in Tahrir Sqaure but across many major cities in the Arab world as well. In Cairo and Alexandria, the protesters hugged one another and, in a touching display of solidarity, began a clean-up of the protest sites, sending a message that they are ready to move on.

But move on towards what? Genuine democracy or continued military dictatorship?

There had been a precedent for a military junta leading a country towards democracy: the council of junior military officers that took over Portugal during the Carnation Revolution. But that junta was composed of young, idealistic soldiers; not powerful, and possibly corrupt, generals. If we are to look at the reasons why the military opposed Gamal Mubarak’s fetish for a market economy, it would be hard not to doubt the Egyptian generals’ commitment to democracy.

It’s hard, too, to expect the United States to pressure the junta towards democracy since Washington would most likely be happy as long as Egypt doesn’t become a threat to Israel and to American interests. It seems, therefore, that the only stakeholders here that could pressure the new junta to keep its democratic promises are the Egyptian people themselves.

Are they up for the challenge?

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website. 

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4 comments

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  2. Pingback: Military rule will remain in Egypt. « The Nutbox
  3. Pingback: I was wrong on Egypt. « The Nutbox
  4. Pingback: On Morsi’s second coup. « The Nutbox

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