Egypt to Remain Military State

The army refuses to loosen its grip on Cairo. Tahrir Square rises again—this time in vain.

For nearly two months, from January 18 to March 4, Tunisian protestors remained in Casbah Square in what some dubbed a “second revolution.” The first dispatched their hated president; the second saw the opposition insisting on core demands, including the resignation of the prime minister and other ruling-party figures.

Egypt has not had its second revolution, and remains governed by an institution—the military—that was long the backbone of the Mubarak regime. With tens of thousands returning to protest across the country on July 8, the frustration with the military regime’s performance and a lack of revolutionary dividends has reached a fever pitch. Protesters representing a wide range of factions, from liberal youth movements to the resurgent Salafis, turned out to voice their anger over the military’s foot-dragging.

The aftermath of the July 8 protests reveals again the flawed nature of Egypt’s transition process. The following day, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf appeared on state television, promising to cleanse the police of all those suspected of killing demonstrators during the country’s 18-day uprising (one of the opposition’s key demands). The demonstrations, then, have clearly had an impact. The fact that they had to happen at all, however—and that their focus should be on “de-Mubarakization” rather than real democratization—should be the primary cause for concern.

Apparently, the only way to hold the military accountable is through the medium of Tahrir. The investigation of the Mubarak family, arrest of former regime officials and the (partial) purging of state security were all achieved through the pressure of the masses gathered in Cairo’s central square. We have seen the Egyptian Revolution 1.0, 1.1, 1.2 . . . but as long as the military fails to respect the spirit of the revolution, we will not see Revolution 2.0.

This is Egypt’s new normal. Protesters protest. Regime grants concessions. Protesters protest again. And so on. If the military is the problem, as much of the opposition seems to think, then the problem has a clear solution: a quick—or quicker—return to the barracks. Oddly enough, many of the liberal and leftist groups participating in antimilitary protests have also supported the “constitution first” movement, which would effectively delay September elections and keep the military in power even longer. Among other things, they believe they need more time in order to organize to counter an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood and members of the former ruling National Democratic Party.

Liberals and leftists find themselves in a negative feedback loop, focused on the short game at the expense of preparing for the elections that many of them are hoping will be postponed. In keeping the military honest, they are being distracted from the sort of organization building that is required for the next phase of Egypt’s transition. The military is not—and was never—a pro-democracy organization. And it won’t become one in the next three months.

Until elections are actually held, we are likely to see more polarization, between the military and the “opposition,” and within the opposition—between powerful Islamists and newly emergent liberal forces. More than anything else, this is a clash of competing, and increasingly conflicting, legitimacies. The military argues it is safeguarding the revolution by privileging stability, even over freedom. The liberals who played a prominent role in toppling Mubarak see the ideals of their revolution—largely secular and non-ideological—being betrayed. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, draws on a long history of struggle with Egypt’s varied dictators, as well as the significant support role they played during the revolution.

Such competition was inevitable. The impressive show of unity and solidarity that characterized the first 18 days in Tahrir Square was unsustainable. The opposition’s hatred of Mubarak brought it together. And its interests, for a brief moment at least, converged with those of the military. “The army and the people hand in hand,” the popular—and somewhat ironic—chant went. Now, five months later, the Egyptian polity seems as divided as ever, roiled by fear and uncertainty.

The jockeying for influence and control over a still unfinished revolution will only intensify. The massive protests of July 8 showed that a growing number of Egyptians are unhappy with the heavy-handed conduct of the transition’s military stewards. As long as their reactive mishandling of the revolution continues—failing to end the state of emergency, dismantle the old regime, and end the use of military tribunals—citizens will, and should, continue to hold them to account in Tahrir Square. Despite the efforts of those who remain camped there, however, real and lasting political change will likely come not through more mass protests, but through a decidedly less glamorous venue—the voting booth and the ballot box.