The demonstrations that have rocked Egypt for the last 18 days have turned into a nation-wide street party, and it is impossible not to be moved by the scenes of Egyptians celebrating their victory. The dictator who ruled Egypt for the last 30 years has been forced from office by non-violent, civil disobedience on a scale not seen since the 1979 revolution in Iran. And the principal agent of transformation – until today, when Mubarak stood down and the army took over – has been the Arab citizen, a striking change in a region where the romanticised figure of ‘resistance’ has been the soldier, the guerilla and, at times, the suicide bomber. At the White House press conference today, Obama and his press officer Robert Gibbs insisted that Egypt’s revolution was really just about Egypt, but they knew better: Washington’s policy during the crisis had been driven by fear of regional instability, and by the fears whispered into the administration’s ears by Israel and the Saudis, and shifted only when Mubarak became a clear liability to American interests.The success of the Egyptian revolutionary model will be studied closely, and its lessons applied. The realisation of the Egyptian dream is the nightmare of Arab despots, and of Binyamin Netanyahu.
But the revolution in Egypt is not over: in fact, it has only begun. Mubarak’s removal from power was only the first objective of Egypt’s demonstrators. It was not just Mubarak but the regime that they want to dislodge, and to replace with a democratic government based on the rule of law. One of the pillars of the regime is the institution that is now improbably cast as the national saviour: the army. The army is respected, even admired by most Egyptians for its role in defending the country’s borders, and for its success in the 1973 war. It has always kept – officially – a discreet distance from the day-to-day running of the country, but it has also acquired a deep investment in the status quo, particularly in the country’s economy: the army is involved in the production of everything from washing machines and heaters to clothing and pharmaceuticals, and is estimated to own about a third of the country’s assets. Nor does it have much incentive to make any changes in foreign policy that might affect the terms of US aid: $1.3 billion per year.
One of the least convincing slogans in Tahrir Square has been ‘the people and the army, standing together’. One can hardly blame the protesters for expressing this hope: it was, arguably, a necessary fiction, without which millions of people would not have dared to turn out to call for Mubarak to stand down. The army played its cards well. Under strong pressure from Robert Gates, it did not fire on demonstrators, and, after Mubarak’s non-resignation speech yesterday – a fantastic tribute to the powers of self-deception – it finally decided to wash its hands of him. But the army did not join the movement, either: a critical phase in classical revolutions. And the communiqués issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt have been ambiguous at best, full of vague promises and calls for people to return home. Certainly they indicate no conversion to the principle of civilian rule. The supreme council, now at the helm of power, was chosen and shaped by Mubarak; its chairman is the defence minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, described in a 2008 WikiLeaks cables as ‘aged and change-resistant’. It is not a description that inspires confidence.