With only days left before Egyptians are to vote in their first elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, thousands of protesters spanning every political ideology, from secular to Islamist, have taken to the streets to pressure the military into relaxing its grip on power.
On Tuesday, the caretaker prime minister and cabinet stepped down, and the military council pledged to transfer power to a civilian government by July 1, 2012, a year earlier than expected. The head of the council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, also said the military would step aside if a national referendum called on it to do so.
But the council has underestimated the determination of the Egyptian people to enact democratic reforms.
The uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February has not produced a genuine transition to democracy. It has merely denied the military the civilian façade behind which it has wielded control for almost six decades.
Since taking charge, the council has made all its important decisions in secrecy, without consulting political groups and parties.
It has repressed political groups it dislikes — including the April 6 Movement, one of the primary drivers of the January uprising. It threw reformist blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah in jail. And it has employed state-owned media outlets in much the same manner Mubarak did, dictating what topics television and newspapers would cover, and what sources they would feature, at times exaggerating Islamists’s appeal.
Though the military council prided itself on not firing on the people during the uprising and pretended to go along with Egypt’s political transition, it remains essentially the same military regime that has governed since the 1952 coup that overthrew King Farouk.
Most Egyptians are under 30, and to them, Mubarak and the regime were synonymous. Egyptian schools teach a whitewashed version of history, glorifying the 1952 revolution and its leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and distorting the nascent democratic processes that existed before him. Few young Egyptians recognize that the military — an institution which textbooks and state media unfailingly glorify — never delivered on its promise to return power to the people.
Nasser led a coup, and picked Anwar Sadat as his successor. Sadat, in turn, picked Mubarak to succeed him. Nasser began as a pro-Western leader, then turned to the Soviets and socialism. Sadat started pro-Soviet, then turned pro-American and instituted some free-market reforms. Nasser fought Israel, while Sadat made peace and Mubarak maintained it.
Yet none of these policies affected how Egyptians themselves were ruled. The regime shifted its outward alliances and ideologies to suit the times, but the military always remained in charge.
Since the fall of Mubarak, the military council has relied on the same survival strategies. It refused to share power during the transition, favoring certain political groups over others, encouraging Salafis and other radical Islamist parties to frighten moderates and Westerners, and employing military courts and emergency laws.
Last February, the military council’s words appealed to Egyptians. Nine months later, its management of the country has reminded Egyptians that the real problem was not Mubarak, but the military dictatorship he represented.
The military’s management has fed uncertainty about Egypt’s political future, frustrating the Egyptian people just as much as Mubarak had and leading ultimately to the renewed confrontations of recent days.
The military can still play a positive role. It must abandon its monopoly on power and pursue a genuine power-sharing arrangement with civilian leaders. It can act as a catalyst for political reforms and ensure that everyone plays by the rules.
So long as the military’s role in Egyptian politics remains ambiguous, as it has over the last six decades, Egypt will remain mired in violence and disorder. In order to fulfill its mandate to protect the people, the army must act as a partner in bringing about a democratic future.
Times have changed. The military has a historic opportunity to establish a new social contract with the Egyptian people, and close the infamous chapter of military dictatorship.
Its commanders must fulfill the promises their forebears made when they first seized power in 1952, and make good on democratic transition — if only to ensure the survival of the institution for which they have fought.
By Khairi Abaza, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, an Egyptian reformer, and former official in Egypt’s liberal Wafd party.