Egypt at the Tipping Point

Tahrir Square is alive again. The fight for the future of Cairo has begun.

The honeymoon between the rebellious youth of Egypt and the military council that took power after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last February is over. The renewed massing of (largely secular) protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the killing by riot police, sent in by the council, of at least three dozen youngsters and the injury of hundreds more in the past three days may be a milestone or watershed in the ongoing Egyptian revolution. Mass demonstrations also occurred in outlying cities, including Asyut, Port Said and Alexandria, and the council-appointed interim cabinet has resigned.

Some have compared the situation to Russia in 1917, when in February the tsarist ancien régime was toppled by popular protest and the interim Keresnsky government was then, in turn, overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the "October" Revolution—which, actually, also took place in November.

The question is who will emerge on top. There are really three possibilities: The military will succeed in crushing the rioters, who are demanding an immediate transfer of power to a civilian government; there will be an abdication by the military, which announced a few weeks ago that it intends to continue "overseeing" whatever government emerges from the scheduled general elections, due to begin on 28 November and to be followed, at some indefinite date, by presidential elections; or a state of bloody, indefinite chaos will ensue.

If the elections go ahead, most observers predict the Islamists will emerge as the dominant bloc in a civilian-coalition government. This explains why the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized Islamist party, appears to have remained on the sidelines in the current troubles: The Brotherhood wants the elections to go ahead and doesn’t want the military to have an excuse to crush the protests (and their own party) or to cancel the poll. But the elections are now in doubt, as it seems unlikely they can go forward in a condition of mass rioting and repression.

The largely secular military council under General Tantawi appears bent on retaining power in order to preserve the officer corps' privileges (good wages; money-making industries and monopolies; relative immunity from civilian oversight and prosecution) and preventing the emergence of a dominant Islamist government that could wish to curtail those privileges and perhaps purge the officer corps and even put on trial officers connected to the persistent repression of dissent. Since February, many thousands of Egyptians have been jailed by military tribunals or simply slung in jail without trial. It is said that some protesters have "disappeared."

An attempted coup by the Islamists, though well organized and popular, seems unlikely, given the army's firepower and the Brotherhood's longtime policy of avoiding open confrontation with the state. But the army's hold on power following the mass return of the protesters to Tahrir Square is beginning to look fragile at best. A standoff between an army that refuses to relinquish power amid mass protests is likely to result in chaos and possibly civil war. Such an outcome would result if the army, which includes many conscripts, begins to fall apart and divide (as some reports suggest is beginning to happen in Syria).

The United States, which helped the Egyptians oust Mubarak but now is merely calling for an end to the violence, appears powerless to affect events. Israelis are looking on with apprehension, mainly worried that the Islamists—who have traditionally vowed to tear up the bilateral 1979 peace treaty and even eradicate the Jewish state—will emerge on top. At the same time, a state of chaos in Egypt is seen as a recipe for renewed friction, including violence, along the Sinai-Israel border.

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His most recent book is One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009).