Just 13 hours after his stubborn Thursday night non-resignation speech, Egypt’s president-for-life relented and resigned. Hosni Mubarak has not fled the country, though; having asserted that this would be an indignity and too painful, he has moved to his vacation home at Sharm al-Sheik.
Whatever. More-importantly, the Swiss government, in what keeping with what appears to be their exciting new policy of non-neutrality towards dictators who profit from corruption, has frozen his large bank account. Switzerland’s shift from a neutrality in holding assets acquired by dictators is a watershed development: Being a dictator has become an even lonelier enterprise–and surprisingly inconvenient over the long term, it seems.
Just hours before Mubarak’s strange, defensive speech–he sought to defend his maintenance in office while not directly-attacking the growing crowds of protesters–Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces called its 3rd general meeting of Mubarak’s shy-30-year rule. Cryptically, it announced that it was “in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt.” Some hopeful protesters interpreted this a sign that a military coup was impending.
This is likely what just happened. It is true that the Egyptian opposition had called for protests on an unprecedented scale today to inform Mubarak that nothing after 2 1/2 weeks was too little too late. These protests were far from superfluous; the military seemed satisfied that they were not going away. Egypt’s economy has suffered considerable losses since January 25, as protesters had to leave work behind, businesses were ransacked by pro-Mubarak vigilantes of uncertain origin, traffic had to be diverted away from centrally-located Tahrir Square in Cairo, and foreign tourism and direct investment nervously rerouted abroad. All of this was injurious as well as nerve-wracking both to the Egyptian military (which is a considerable stakeholder in the country’s economy) and Mubarak’s upper-class supporters.
So it is far from conspiratorial thinking to suspect that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces informed their would-be president-for-life that he must step aside…or else. If you watched some of the televised accounts of protesters in the street, there was a powerful, even contagious sense of excitement–not in spite of the fact that Egypt was now under provisional military government, but because of it. The Egyptian Army apparently enjoys as much trust and respect as any Egyptian public institution, being a conscription force in which all Egyptian males are expected to serve at some point between the ages of 18 and 30. Though it has not seen war since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, it had fought in wars many times previously and is widely respected as the force that defends the nation.
The current euphoria in Egypt is hardly a conclusive case that military government doesn’t pose complications or risks for Egyptian democracy. “Military dictatorship,” of course, is a term long-associated with the polar opposite of popular sovereignty. About the best that can be said for military government is that it often doesn’t last very long, as generals frequently don’t want to be in charge of their country’s politics. But as our experience ranging from General Park Chung-Hee in South Korea (1961-1979), General Suharto in Indonesia (1965/6-1998), General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan (1999-2008) indicate, military dictators sometimes stick around a long while. Suharto governed as a fascist, killing hundreds of thousands and imposing a single national identity on a vast and diverse country. General Musharraf facilitated the isolation of his country and fiddled as it was infiltrated by violent Islamists, departing in 2008 with his country wracked by chronic corruption, terrorism, and assassinations of public figures. Even where they could be thought of as benevolent dictators, presiding generals are no more subject to checks and balances than any other dictator, and if they are succeeded by other generals, their successors are similarly-empowered to cancel reforms with as much caprice as their predecessor had foresight.
But sometimes military governments rule for brief periods, stepping aside after achieving a specific mandate they set for themselves. This seems to have been the situation with Turkey’s 1980 Evren coup, at which time Turkey’s programmatic secular military deposed a technically-leaderless and deadlocked government and repressed Islamists calling for the institution of Islamic law. New elections were held 3 years later–though politicians the military considered threatening were banned from participating at that time–and the military government stepped down. While the ensuing road to full party competition was long, the new constitution eventually paved the way for the electoral rise of the moderate Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003.
It appears that Egypt’s provisional military government will have a 7-month life span, stepping down after September elections. Obviously this time frame assumes that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces truly wishes to remain apolitical–a big assumption–or at least that the Council believes this would be a poor time to jeopardize its credibility and $1.3 billion in annual US military aid in order to hijack the politics of a country that just saw its first-ever popular revolution succeed in 18 days–which isn’t a big if at all. So, yes, the Liberal Ironist thinks there is a sense of (guarded) optimism about this provisional military government and the September elections in which, yes, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will be able to participate.
President Obama has erred on the side of caution throughout Egypt’s Lotus Revolution. While our government is understandably concerned about the open-ended position a democratically-elected Egyptian government could take on our current foreign and national security policy in the region, the only other authoritarian US ally in the region with a comparably-sensitive relationship is Saudi Arabia–a theocratic absolute monarchy where we already chronically fear the prospect of revolution. So the Liberal Ironist thinks this is a good time for the President to get out ahead of the Arab democracy movement, unabashedly commending the virtue and the potential for good we see in it, frankly discussing the cause for and consequences of our alliances with the region’s autocrats–and to present those reliable but repressive allies with a choice. This will be the focus of an upcoming post.