Paul Pillar

Stage Two of the Egyptian Revolution

The second stage of a revolution often turns out to be the most important. The first stage breaks the hold of whatever regime came before, but what comes next is apt to have the greater lasting impact. In the Russian Revolution it was not the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky but instead the Bolsheviks who overthrew him who would shape much of twentieth century history. In the Iranian Revolution it was not Mehdi Bazargan, the first post-shah head of government, but rather those coming later who created the regime that would become the preoccupation that it is today. Neither of those transitions worked out well from the West's point of view, but revolutionary transitions don't always have to be for the worse. In the French Revolution, the Thermidorian Reaction and the Directory were a whole lot better than the Reign of Terror. The point is that the toppling of whoever sat atop the ancien regime is not a culmination but only a beginning.

Now Egypt is moving into the second stage of its latest revolution. Dissatisfaction and impatience with the military are showing up in the form of more protests in the streets, and the military is using more force to retain order. Not just Egyptians but outsiders will have to give this revolution renewed attention, notwithstanding the distractions next door in Libya and elsewhere in the region. Despite the enormous attention that was given to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak during his final fortnight in office (and the alarm this change of leadership, and the U.S. posture toward it, caused the rulers of Saudi Arabia), many will come to ask whether that change was really much of a revolution at all. Although Mubarak had not worn his uniform for years, it will occur to many that this former bomber pilot and air force chief was only the latest head of a continuing political order that began with a military coup in 1952. In some ways his departure seems more like a change of command than a revolution.

A host of issues will occupy political actors in Egypt in the weeks and months ahead. They include basic constitutional questions about the shape of a new framework for governing. They include also issues of the timing of elections. Farther in the future will be issues of economic restructuring, in a country in which the military plays a very large economic role.

For the United States, which will have to formulate policies toward what goes on in Egypt, some of the most difficult decisions lie ahead—probably more difficult than the policy that welcomed Mubarak's departure. If there are more clashes in the streets, what will be the U.S. posture? More fundamentally, what should be the U.S. preference regarding the political role of the Egyptian military? Should we have in mind the model of Pakistan? Or Turkey? Or how about the Turkey of a couple of decades ago? Should the Egyptian military have any political role at all? The proper long-term view is to smile more broadly the more the Egyptian army moves back to the barracks. But there will be those in this country who worry about what a brave new political world in Egypt might bring and who probably would welcome the military serving as a brake on possible changes that make them uncomfortable.