Foreign Policy Blogs

All Eyes On Egypt's Military

The thing to watch in Egypt is the military.  It all goes back to Crane Brinton’s observation, made in The Anatomy of Revolution, that:

…it is almost safe to say that no government is likely to be overthrown until it loses the ability to make adequate use of its military and police powers.  That loss of ability may show itself in the actual desertion of soldiers and police to the revolutionists, or in the stupidity with which the government manages its soldiers and police.

Of all the arguments made in all the academic literature on revolutions – that it’s “an aspect of modernization,” as Samuel Huntington argues in Political Order in Changing Societies; that it’s fueled by population growth, as Jack Goldstone argues in Population Growth and Revolutionary Crises; that it results from elite-government clashes stemming from state reform attempts following instances of international military hostility, as Theda Skocpol argues in States & Social Revolutions,” to name a few examples – Brinton’s statement seems to endure as the safest and most universal assertion.

Seemingly, all sides involved in Egypt’s political crisis – the government, the protesters, the media – understand the Brinton maxim.  As the Wall Street Journal reported last week:

Throughout the afternoon in Cairo, demonstrators challenged police to employ the sort of heavy-handed tactics that in the end helped undo Tunisia’s autocratic regime. The Tunisian army’s refusal to follow presidential orders to fire live rounds into a crowd of demonstrators is credited with turning the tide…

For all the inspiration protesters drew from Tunisia, the demonstrations underscored important differences between the two countries.

Unlike in Tunisia, where the military paved the way for Mr. Ben Ali’s ouster by holding fire on demonstrators, Egypt’s military has an economic interest in keeping the current regime in power. Mr. Mubarak is a former Air Force general, and the government has given top officers control over some of Egypt’s largest state-owned businesses.

And as The New York Times reported over the weekend of Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president, a role that sets Suleiman up to be Mubarak’s possible successor:

But Mr. Suleiman, a former general, is also the establishment’s candidate, not the public’s. His appointment, and his elevation, if it were to occur, would represent not the democratic change called for on the street, but most likely a continuation of the kind of military-backed, authoritarian leadership that Mr. Mubarak has led for nearly 30 years, experts said.

“I think basically this is a way of paving the way for a military-led regime in a so-called constitutional context,” said Ragui Assaad, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “It is clearly the result of negotiations with the army.”

These points, unfortunately, do not bode well for the success of the protesters.