Commanding Democracy in Egypt

The Military's Attempt to Manage the Future

Many of the iconic images from Egypt's revolution depict the Egyptian military supporting the uprising in Tahrir Square. As soldiers joined demonstrators and allowed them to scrawl "Mubarak Leave" on the sides of their tanks, the protesters became convinced that the military would protect the revolution and move Egypt toward democracy. The Egyptian army's top commanders pledged to do just that. The day after Hosni Mubarak fell, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military body now governing the country, vowed to "ensure a peaceful transition of authority within a free and democratic system that allows an elected civilian authority to take charge of governing the country." Yet the SCAF's attempts to curtail dissent and the democratic process have fueled doubts about its true intentions. Will the military fulfill its promise to support democracy? Or will it seek to replace Mubarak's rule with its own or that of a friendly autocrat?

Thus far, the evidence suggests that the SCAF does not want to continue ruling the country after Egypt's parliamentary elections this fall, nor does it want to return the country to a single-party system. But that should provide little comfort to those hoping to see Egypt become a full democracy, in which the military is subordinate to civilian rule. Above all, the generals are determined to preserve stability and protect their privileged position. They recognize that ruling the country directly threatens their position by potentially provoking instability, exposing them to public criticism, and dividing their ranks. And they want to avoid being blamed for Egypt's growing economic and social problems, such as double-digit inflation and unemployment, continued labor unrest, and a rise in crime. As a result, the SCAF is eager to hand power over to an elected government -- but only to preserve its power and perks, not out of some deep-seated belief in democracy.

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