On Monday, Mubarak’s former subordinates in the military retook Cairo's famed Tahrir Square from protesters, a week after they had already disappointed liberal reformers by celebrating the coup that ended almost a century of democratic progress in the country. The National Day coup in 1952 established the familiar military regime that survived for nearly 60 years, and from which all of Egypt’s presidents since have drawn their legitimacy.
Egypt’s state TV aired its usual pro-1952 historic movies, and provisional ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi addressed the nation, promising reforms, reiterating the country’s commitments to international treaties and peaceful relations with the world. He also maintained that Egypt could only navigate its current difficulties if it remains unified.
Tantawi should nonetheless have trodden more lightly. If the military council fails to find a way forward with the democratic reformers, he will weaken both groups, and lead the country toward chaos.
In commemorating the events of July 23, the military celebrated the day it wrote off the freedom and the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.
It should instead have taken this opportunity to close the book on that dark chapter in history, and seek a new social contract with the Egyptian people. The new deal should redefine the role of the military, and see to it that it nurtures the nascent democratic order, rather than interfering haphazardly in political matters and making unpopular unilateral decisions.
The February revolution in Egypt was supposed to put an end to the 1952 regime, but that government is alive and well.
Deposed president Hosni Mubarak, as well as his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser were, after all, only its figureheads. Though now nominally headed by the supreme military council, the government remains in essence a military dictatorship, which has adjusted its ideology and alliances as necessary over time. It started out capitalist, went socialist and pan-Arabist, then turned capitalist again. It started as a Western ally, turned non-aligned, then pro-Soviet, and finally became a close U.S. ally, which it has remained for the last three decades.
At each stage, the military regime has been deaf to the legitimate demands of the Egyptian people. Today’s revolution affords Egypt an opportunity to clarify the ambiguous relationship between its political institutions and its military, to break with its troubled past, and to build a lasting democratic state.
Every Egyptian president since Nasser has come from the military, and each has designated another military man as a successor. Even Mubarak, when protestors forced him to leave office in February, did not abide the constitution’s requirement that he delegate his prerogatives to the speaker of the parliament. Instead, he gave his absolute power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—whose members he had chosen.
After the fall of Mubarak, the military council inherited a disastrous economic situation, and no shortage of other problems stemming from six decades of mismanagement. Yet the military is not a political party, and it cannot be held responsible for solving all of those problems. Rather, its role is to foster a transition to a democratic government that will have a popular mandate to solve those problems. The military should simply serve as a catalyst for the political forces and an arbitrator between them when necessary.
To its credit, the military protected the protesters until Mubarak left office. The military council also managed to maintain unity in the ranks -- no small matter -- and promised to help build a democratic state.
The military must now unite Egyptian parties behind a common vision for the country’s political future, and manage the process of making the most delicate decisions. No political faction yet knows what type of constitution will be drafted, and how.
Above all, the military must provide assurances that it will remain politically independent, and that it will intervene in domestic politics only as necessary to protect democratic procedures and human rights.
Both civilians and military can benefit from such an arrangement. As long as there is no serious dialogue between the groups, their legitimate powers will remain unclear, paving the way for a weak and unstable democracy.
Egyptian military elites must recognize that they will do better by insulating their institution from the fires of politics. They should become the guardians of Egypt’s external stability, and the guarantors of the new democratic order.
No new government can derive its legitimacy from a coup that brought about six decades of illegitimate rule, under which Egyptians had precious little political freedom.
The military council must now restore these liberties, and deliver where the 1952 military leaders failed: returning the troops to the barracks, and power to the people.
Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former official in Egypt's secular liberal Wafd party.