Corralling Dreams in Cairo

Don't expect the Egyptian military to let calls for democracy run amok.

Mubarak is gone, and the world is waiting with bated breath to see what follows. The Obama Administration having veered between a desire to maintain stability—with or without Mubarak—and a desire to see him go soonest, now looks to the Egyptian military to oversee a transition toward democracy. That is what they claim to be doing now that they have declared martial law, suspended a meaningless constitution and disbanded Mubarak’s rubber stamp parliament. What democracy means to Egyptians is very much unclear, however. Their first priority remains economic revival and the jobs that go with it. (No one committed suicide over democracy—they did over jobs.)

A stronger Egyptian economy may or may not involve democratic norms; China, after all, has managed quite well economically without reforming its governance in any significant way. The democratic West, on the other hand, has yet to get past the great recession of 2008-09. Indeed, several of Europe’s economically weaker democracies remain on the verge of bankruptcy. Neither their democratic norms, nor their strong civil societies, have thus far rescued them from their fiscal profligacy. On the contrary, it is arguable that democracy has not only not prevented economic waste, it may well have encouraged it; certainly, elements of what is termed civil society pushed governments to spend beyond their means.

Egypt’s military leaders, so many of whom are steeped in business ventures of one sort or another, are well aware of the democratic West’s fiscal woes. They may well choose to focus on economic matters, leaving democratization for a later day. No doubt intellectuals, students and journalists will be at the forefront of any ensuing howls of protest. On the other hand, ordinary Egyptians may not be as willing to march on the government again if they sense that it is taking tangible steps to enable them to work in order to house, feed and clothe their families.

Moreover, the Gulf Arab governments, wary of democracy spreading to their part of the Arab world, may offer financial aid to help Egypt move past its current economic and political crisis. They would do well to do so. They have the ready cash—oil price rises have been kind to them—and they would benefit as much as the Egyptians if their assistance fostered an orderly, and not necessarily democratic, post-Mubarak transition.

The Egyptian military knows that it dare not break with the United States; it has 1.3 billion (foreign aid) reasons for not doing so. In particular it knows that rupturing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel will mean the end of American economic assistance. In fact, if Egypt renounced the treaty, Israel would be within its rights to recapture the Sinai, including Sharm e-Sheikh. Of all people, Hosni Mubarak might then be living in Israeli territory. Not.

Israel has no intention of retaking the Sinai, however, and Egypt’s military leaders have already announced they will abide by the treaty. By that they clearly mean that any future Egyptian government will abide by the treaty. For their part, Israel’s military leaders—some of whom I met during a brief visit to that country this past week—seem quite calm about developments in Egypt, in contrast to many Israeli politicians and pundits who were positively frantic about what was happening beyond their southern border. The Israeli military men all appeared to be saying that matters would work out, that they trusted their Egyptian counterparts. It is good that they do so.

Most Egyptians are too young to remember the false promises of the 1952 revolt that ousted King Farouk. They expect more from their current military leaders. At the same time, Egypt’s generals appear to be assuming the role akin to that long held by Turkey’s military—guardians of the state who would reluctantly seize power when politicians could do nothing more than squabble among themselves. And then the military would return to its barracks. Should the generals adopt such an approach, they will give the politicians a chance, but keep them on a short leash. And that may not be a bad thing at all.