After a long day full of (pleasant) surprises and marked gains by Egyptian protesters, President Hosni Mubarak shocked observers with a speech that made little sense from the perspective of many audiences who are watching the situation carefully in Egypt. In what should have been a farewell speech by the 82-year old Egyptian president, Mubarak announced that he will appoint a new government that will respond to the demands of the protesters, except for the most important one: Putting an end to 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. The speech, full of expressions that signal Mubarak’s desire to continue his ‘mission’ as president (e.g. “I will continue…”), fell well short of the expectation that he will follow Ben Ali’s footsteps and call it quits. Is his move nothing more than a reflection of old-age stubbornness and disconnection from reality? Probably. But I sense that there is more to it than just that.
While the current situation is evolving (very quickly) and full of uncertainties, there is one important trend that could help us make sense of January 28. Namely, the army has shown no signs of disloyalty to Mubarak. Army units followed his orders to deploy throughout central areas inside and outside Cairo, and have been fairly successful in securing critical targets such as the national television building. The army’s continued support, coupled with the reluctance of the majority of protesters to engage in confrontations with military officers, presents an important source of confidence for the president.
While the army has (expectedly) become the wild card in Mubarak’s battle against his challengers, there are a number of enduring interests that will limit the willingness of officers to make any adventurous moves. As unhappy as officers are with the status quo, they will not rebel against it in the midst of uncertainty. Mubarak and his close affiliates have gradually eliminated all viable alternatives to the incumbent within the regime and inside the organized opposition. This explains why the recent push for change is coming, not from within organized politics, but from popular uprisings and contentious activism. A new interim government, unmanaged elections, and constitutional reforms all raise the possibility of a new political arena that could jeopardize continuity in national security policy (stable relations with the United States and Egypt’s neighbors), as well as the military’s various economic interests that the current order is protecting. Most likely the military is still committed to the idea that the best way to protect these interests is not by helping overturn the political status quo in which they are invested. (This of course raises some unpleasant and scary questions about how far the army is willing to go in fending off this challenge.) Officers did not reach this calculation alone, but the signals coming from Washington—one of the Egyptian military’s major subsidizers—today seem to reinforce their interest in not giving up on the political status quo. Since Vice President Joseph Biden’s remarks last night that he does not believe that Mubarak should step down, the Obama administration has made no effort to send a different message.
These perceptions could change, however. Egyptian officers and U.S. officials might come to believe that they can do without Mubarak if the movement(s) advancing this chaotic protest is able to come up with a credible leadership that articulates clearly, not just its demands (which have been made quite clear), but assurances and guarantees to powerful actors inside and outside Egypt that a post-Mubarak Cairo will not pose risks for the army’s interests and will not compromise Egypt’s international and regional commitments. Otherwise, officers (and Washington) will remain convinced that ending Mubarak’s tenure is effectively turning power over to angry (and unpredictable) mobs.
Changing these perceptions and ambiguities requires a credible opposition leadership that is willing and capable of compromising with those who will likely hold a veto over the outcome of the ongoing developments—most notably the army and Washington. For this reason, Egypt’s popular uprising, by its diffused grassroots nature, is at a disadvantage, but not an insurmountable one. Adam Przeworski wrote 25 years ago “If a peaceful transition to democracy is to be possible, the first problem to be solved is how to institutionalize uncertainty without threatening the interests of those who can still reverse this process.” This challenge could not be more pertinent to what lies ahead for advocates of transformative change in Egypt. A pragmatic compromise with officers (and other veto actors) is needed if the ‘same old’ compromises with Mubarak are to be avoided.