The Egyptian Endgame

PRINCETON – Can Egypt’s long history help us to understand the uprising, already labeled a revolution, now underway in Cairo, and how it might turn out? I believe so. After all, the demonstrations by millions of people to demand an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party (NDP) are not an unprecedented phenomenon in the country.

Egypt’s history is replete with powerful and famous rulers (starting with Ramses II in pharaonic times, and including Saladin, Muhammad Ali, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Cromer, all the way up to the Egyptian military trio of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar El Sadat, and Mubarak). This suggests that, although Egyptians may not necessarily prefer strongman rule, they are entirely comfortable with it and may even believe that it is necessary.

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To be sure, popular revolts are nothing new for Egypt. Crowds rose against Napoleon’s French forces in 1798, against the monarchy in 1881-1882, against British dominance in 1919 and 1952, against Sadat in 1977, and against Mubarak in 1986. These uprisings were repressed, often brutally, first by foreign troops (the French army in 1798 and British soldiers in 1882 and 1919) and more recently by the Egyptian army.

Unfortunately, while angry protesters have sometimes forced unwelcome rulers out of power, they have been unable to replace tyrants with governments that respect the public’s wishes. Will this long history of authoritarian rule now be broken?

The first days of the current uprising favored the people. The crowds were enormous and peaceful, not only in Cairo, the historic node for protest, but in all of Egypt’s cities. In addition, the army, called out ostensibly to restore order, held back, a markedly different response from its repression of past uprisings. French and British soldiers did not hesitate to put down resistance. Nor did the Egyptian army in 1952, 1977, and 1986.

The uprising in 1952 is particularly revealing, because it was widespread and intensely popular, for it was directed against the much-hated British. Although the British had 100,000 troops stationed near the Suez Canal at the time, they chose not to intervene. Instead, it was the small and highly professional Egyptian army that crushed the uprising, to the dismay of the young officer corps, who were already well advanced in their plans to seize power.

Years of fighting in Arab-Israeli conflicts, however, transformed the army, giving rise to a massive conscript force that totals approximately 400,000 soldiers today. The army’s lower ranks are now filled with young men, drawn from all segments of Egyptian society, whose backgrounds are no different from those of the people they may be called upon to suppress. Today’s Egyptian army is a people’s army, and, unlike the reviled security forces, it is widely admired. Senior officers surely know the risks that they will incur if they order these men to fire on friends and relatives.

Moreover, the current mass demonstrations are radically different from previous protest movements that the army suppressed. In 1977, many rose to oppose an end to food and other consumer subsidies; in 1986, poorly paid security forces went on a rampage. The numbers involved in those protests were miniscule compared to now. Nor were the protesters’ actions peaceful. They threatened property and undermined political order from the outset. The Egyptian high command did not need to worry that rank-and-file soldiers would disobey orders, because they were protecting the citizenry.

Yet, the current protest, which started so peacefully and with such ebullience, took a dramatic and violent turn several days ago. Mubarak’s promise that he would not run for re-election this coming September, which might have mollified his critics two weeks earlier, was no longer enough. When this concession failed, Mubarak and the ruling NDP began to work behind the scenes, encouraging their followers to attack protesters and provoke violence.

But Mubarak has also prepared the way for a new set of leaders – all strongly committed to the old order. Almost all of them are high-ranking military officers, now elevated to the government’s most important offices. Generals now hold the positions of Vice-President, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Minister of the Interior. Nor are the anti-government protesters likely to find robust support from the United States, always deeply involved in Egyptian affairs, regardless of how often President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasize America’s commitment to freedom and democracy.

Yes, the Americans want Mubarak to leave – and quickly. But the anchor of US policy in the Middle East is the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, negotiated by Sadat in 1979, maintained by Mubarak, and well liked by Egypt’s military high command, which controls the strongest Arab army, is US-trained, and has been supplied with top-shelf American weaponry. A popular government in which the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is represented would worry the Americans and the Egyptian military, owing to the prospect that it would repudiate the peace treaty with Israel and jeopardize relations with the US.

But that is not the most immediate concern. Should violence increase, ordinary soldiers would likely once again feel duty-bound to intervene to restore order and prevent further bloodshed. If not, the prospects for a transition to a government formed by leaders of the much-respected Egyptian army and moderates representing business and political elites seem high.