Who rules Egypt, and who will rule it tomorrow? After 30 years the Hosni Mubarak period is coming to a close, but how the period ends—in violence and turmoil, or on a stable path to democracy—remains unclear. Mubarak’s insistence on staying in office until the bitter end may sacrifice the opportunity for a peaceful transition. His defiance is bringing Egypt’s Army closer and closer to the fateful decision to turn against the people—the only alternative to throwing Mubarak out.
Mubarak's fatal mistakes in recent years, the products of aging, his wife's dynastic ambitions, and the distance from the people that three decades in office made almost inevitable, were to refuse even minimal reforms and to leave his son Gamal as his potential successor. This presented Egyptians with a nightmare vision after last November's parliamentary elections were stolen: thirty more years of Mubaraks, without a scintilla of change or reform. That was the dry tinder; Tunisia was the spark that set it off.
The Army did not immediately take sides. It was initially smart enough to say it would not fire on the demonstrators and turn Tahrir Square into an Egyptian Tiananmen, but the institution waited to see whether Mubarak’s hard line would pay off and the demonstrations would flag. The military was complicit in the worst day of significant violence, when it withdrew so that thugs could attack the crowds in Tahrir Square. That violence did not cow the protesters and taught the Army a lesson: Mubarak and his crowd were mishandling things and could be dangerous for the institution. So when Mubarak lost the bet that a whiff of regime violence would clear the streets, he was forced to step back. He appointed a vice president and announced that he would not run again (nor would his son run) for president—a concession that would have avoided this entire historic confrontation had it been made a few months earlier. The Army waited to see if the protests petered out.
When labor unions, lawyers’ associations, and finally even government employees joined the defiant demonstrators early last week, it seemed the people were not abandoning the struggle and Mubarak would have to go. But the old man refused: when he spoke on Thursday night he claimed that some of his powers would be delegated to Omar Suleiman, his new vice president, but he refused to step down. Put another way, even in the face of gigantic public opposition, the Army refused to push him out. Instead, Suleiman spoke right after Mubarak and told the protesters to leave the Square and go back to work. Their demands would be met, he promised, through a national dialogue and free elections in the fall. Hours later the Army high command weighed in, backing the Mubarak/Suleiman plan and repeating Suleiman's call for all demonstrations to end. The Army communiqué added that the emergency law would be lifted as soon as the demonstrations did, and free elections would be held.
It is already clear that neither these promises nor these commands will cool the desire for real change and for Mubarak’s departure. The Mubarak and Suleiman speeches were re-runs of "Father Knows Best" and might have been designed to incite the opposition: full of paternalistic claptrap about their love for Egypt and its youth, blaming all problems on foreigners and satellite networks, and bathed in the mawkish patriotism that for a half century has been used to justify the military dictatorship. The public is unlikely to accept Mubarakism without Mubarak, especially when that bargain is offered by Mubarak himself, clinging to his post. Egyptians appear to want what in essence Tunisians have won: genuine change. Tunisians mocked and raged when such change was promised by Ben Ali; Egyptians are rejecting Mubarak's poisoned offer.
So the Egyptian Army will still face the binary choice it has sought to avoid: to back Mubarak and use force to suppress the populace, or present itself as the savior of the people and the state and throw him out. As the days go by the chances for a good outcome diminish—an outcome where a united military delivers the country from Mubarak to a far more open system. Omar Suleiman might have played the leading role in that happy drama, but has squandered his prestige on saving Mubarak. Instead, it is increasingly likely that the military will split. After regime thugs used violence in Tahrir Square two weeks ago, the new prime minister—Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force commander—let it be known that he disapproved and might resign. Perhaps this was disingenuous, but it is a very small taste of what may come. One danger is that the 70 year old generals who have feathered nests and who are personally loyal to Mubarak may want to stick with him far longer than 40 or 50 year old officers who want long careers after Mubarak is gone. If the Army uses violence against the populace, some general or colonel may refuse orders to fire and turn the tanks around. Last week an assassination attempt on Suleiman was reported; additional attempts against him and even against Mubarak are not impossible.
If the demonstrations grow and grow, it is still likely that the Army will in the end reverse itself and turn against Mubarak. The institution that is the ultimate guard against an Islamist effort to seize power, or against sheer anarchy, is threatened by Mubarak’s insistence that he must follow the Constitution and cannot resign. Few Egyptians will miss the irony: this man who for decades violated the rights their constitution guarantees them now seeks to hide behind it in order to protect his position. But if the military stays absolutely united behind Mubarak and Suleiman and suppresses the movement for democracy, it is sowing the seeds for a real and bloody revolution just a few years down the road.
All this is Hosni Mubarak's disastrous legacy. For thirty years he ruled under an emergency law that he used to crush all moderate and centrist parties. Not a single significant step toward democracy was taken during all those years of quiet. He will leave behind a Muslim Brotherhood stronger now than when he came to power. Under him, Egypt’s prestige and influence in the Arab League and throughout the region have declined to an historic low. To hang on these extra months he has thrust the country into chaos. The longer it continues the harder it will be for Egypt to find a path to real democracy. And the easier it will be for extremists to seize the opportunities that chaos always presents.