If the recent events in Egypt confirm anything, it is that the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want.
The protesters wanted Mubarak brought down and they succeeded . . . in ushering in a military junta. It’s hardly surprising that the first acts of the junta included abrogating the constitution, dissolving parliament and ambushing demonstrators in Tahrir Square with wooden clubs.
The military multitasked, all the while maintaining the power structure of the dictatorial Mubarak regime. There was little question the junta would enforce the hated Emergency Act, which allowed security forces to arrest without formal charges and to suppress public demonstrations.
It takes at least six months to prepare for elections and allow political parties to organize and campaign. So when Mubarak agreed he would step down in September, the protesters could have demanded that the September elections be conducted under international supervision in order to allow political groups to prepare. (Even in the United States, a presidential election can take up to a year to conduct nominating conventions, primaries, and campaigning.)
But the people demanded Mubarak’s immediate ouster in full knowledge that a military coup would be the inevitable result.
The naïveté of those nursing the notion that such a junta with absolute power will give it all up to allow free elections is breathtaking in its scope. Certainly history supports no such unrealistic expectations.(Note the longevity of the military junta in Argentina in the 1980s, the military dictatorship of Napoleon following the French Revolution, or the dictatorship of the Proletariat after the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1917).
There was never any secret that if Mubarak fell immediately, the power vacuum could only be filled by one of the two most organized and disciplined groups in the country -- either the Muslim Brotherhood or the military.
Given that the military is now bloated with the hardware needed for suppression (including the world’s most advanced tanks in the U.S. arsenal), bought with more than $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, there was never any real possibility that the power vacuum would not be filled by a military junta.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has managed to outrage nearly everyone, from our allies in Saudi Arabia who remain alarmed at the perfidy of the U.S. government, to the throngs in Tahrir Square who will forget neither the inexplicable assertion of Vice President Biden early in the crisis that “Mubarak is not a dictator,” nor the indecisive and opportunistic change of tune by President Obama only when it looked like the protesters might actually prevail.
Perhaps the salient lesson to be learned by these sad events is that a voter with a rock in his hand is worth 1,000 in the voting booth. While it is true that the 100,000 or so protesters who filled Tahrir Square (representing less than 1 percent of more than 80 million Egyptians) accomplished what the remaining 99 percent could not, the notion that those who took to the streets in order to usher in a military junta represented the will of the entire nation is only slightly less breathtaking than the notion that any group other than the military would seize power if Mubarak left immediately.
Certainly, this was the lesson that protesters learned in 2002 when their street demonstrations managed to convince Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein that he was safe in defying UN arms inspectors -- a decision that resulted in war when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, authorizing “serious consequences” if Saddam continued to defy UN weapons inspection.
The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly authorized the use of military force against Iraq by a vote of 77-23. (This was the same month that a New York Times poll revealed that 67 percent of Americans supported going to war against Iraq).
It could be suggested that history never repeats itself; rather it’s the historians who repeat themselves.
Robert Hardaway is Professor of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College Of Law, and the author of seventeen books on law and public policy.