Egypt Revolutions's Coming Face-Off: Protesters Vs. the Military

Post-Mubarak, the country is experiencing a historic moment of unity, but it is entering an unstable period that could leave Egypt a stable democracy, like Turkey, or a chaotic nightmare, like Iraq. Stephen Kinzer on the looming clash between the protesters and the military.

A dictator's corrupt and repressive rule becomes unbearable as people see that his family intends to hold power forever. A popular movement arises, embracing every layer of society. Finally, unimaginably, the family that has tyrannized its nation for decades is gone. People feel an exhilarating sense of accomplishment and suddenly see limitless possibilities for themselves and their country. Everyone wants the same things: democracy, honest government, and a respectable place in the world. It is a moment of sublime unity rare in history.

That was Nicaragua in 1979. I covered that turbulent year, and saw how quickly the jubilation of victory can fade. In all probability, this month—February 2011—will prove to be the all-time high point for unity among Egyptians. The example of Nicaragua suggests they should enjoy it while they can, because it's likely to dissolve quickly.

The comparison between the two revolutions is not exact. Nicaragua's dynastic dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was deposed by a guerrilla-led movement, while Hosni Mubarak was toppled after an outburst of peaceful protest. And there is little similarity between a poor, remote country of 3 million and one that has centuries of rich culture, a tradition of regional power, and 85 million people including a substantial middle class. Yet rebellions in Nicaragua and Egypt sprang from the same frustrations and were infused by the same idealistic dreams. The one in Nicaragua has not worked out well; the country is at peace but is as poor and undemocratic as ever.

What happened? Conflicting ideologies fueled by the inexperience of new leaders led to quick polarization. Men in uniform proved unwilling to cede real power to civilians. Ultimately Nicaragua split violently apart. Warring factions sought military aid from outside patrons, and the country became a bloody theater for big-power rivalries. Four years after a revolution that at least 90 percent of Nicaraguans supported, the country was in civil war.

Equivalent dangers await Egypt. The dictator is gone, but the political and economic structures he built remain largely intact. How much power the army is willing to surrender to civilians is not at all clear. There will be intense debate over policy toward Israel and, by extension, the United States. Habits of democracy are unformed. Civil society is weak, and there are few organized groups other than the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt is free of Mubarak, but for now it is still just a poor Middle Eastern country ruled by a junta of geriatric soldiers. If there is to be a revolution, it has not yet happened.

For best-case and worst-case scenarios of Egypt's future, it is only necessary to look around the neighborhood. If all goes swimmingly well, Egypt could become an Arab version of Turkey: an open democracy with a capitalist economy, fundamentally pro-West although strongly opposed to U.S. policies in the Middle East, and governed by observant Muslims who reserve a place for religion in public life. That's the best outcome for which outsiders can dare to hope.

The other extreme is Iraq. Sectarian divides are not as pronounced in Egypt as in Iraq, but in both countries, long stagnation has prevented the emergence of any shared vision of national goals or identity. Egyptians may soon become frustrated by perceived betrayals of this year's uprising. Some powerful forces might see benefits in promoting instability. If Egypt makes a peaceful transition to democracy, for example, the army's power will inevitably fade. Chaos, however, always gives armies a good excuse to stay in power.

A peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt would also lead people in other Arab countries to conclude that they face a choice between autocracy or freedom. Dictators, however, want them to conclude something different: that the choice is between autocracy and terror. Fomenting terror in Egypt would help them make their point—and stay in power.

All three of the Middle East's powerful religious regimes have an interest in seeing Egypt stumble. For Saudi Arabia and Israel, a peaceful, democratic Egypt would be a potent rival for Washington's affection. For Iran, it would threaten dreams of regional hegemony. All three will cheer quietly if Egypt drifts toward the abyss of instability. They may even nudge it along.

Domestic conflicts that escalate into proxy wars fueled by powerful outsiders: This spiral destroyed national unity in Nicaragua, and, more recently, in Iraq. It now threatens Egypt.

Debates over the role of the army will soon challenge the national unity that now holds Egyptians in its fickle embrace. People realize that the army is essential for a peaceful transition, but they also want to reduce its power. Already they are demanding that the Mubarak regime's corrupt business structures be dismantled, but this would strike directly at the army, which built a dense web of investments with Mubarak and his inner circle. In addition, Egyptian generals have warm relationships with their American and Israeli counterparts, and will resist demands for radical changes in Egypt's policy toward Israel.

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History presents few examples of military overlords meekly retiring to their barracks in the face of growing civilian power. The encouraging counterexample is Turkey, where over the last decade voters have dramatically cut military power and the generals have grudgingly allowed themselves to be marginalized. Even that process, though, took a generation to develop.

At least Egyptian generals have experience in politics. The same cannot be said for many of the politicians, entrepreneurs, trade unionists, students, farmers, women, religious fundamentalists, and others who will emerge in the coming months to present their competing visions of a new Egypt. It is a volatile menagerie and will be cacophonous.

In Egypt, the army finally turned on Mubarak because it saw that sacrificing him was necessary to save the ruling system. The hundreds of thousands who filled Tahrir Square, however, want to wipe away that system. Or do they? People's shared goals in the wake of revolution are vague and diffuse. The astonishing unity that emerges at these rare moments is only a unanimous rejection of the old regime. It reflects no consensus about what comes next.

Two groups in Egypt believe they toppled Mubarak. Demonstrators think he fell before their numbers and moral power. Military commanders, however, believe the credit is theirs; they staged a coup to prevent a dynastic transition, using the protests as a convenient excuse. These groups have conflicting agendas and will soon face off.

Egypt is free of Mubarak, but for now it is still just a poor Middle Eastern country ruled by a junta of geriatric soldiers. If there is to be a revolution, it has not yet happened. Generals will try to make sure it doesn't. That may bring protesters back to Tahrir Square. Egypt is entering an unstable period. Turkey is its dream. Nicaragua and Iraq are its nightmares.

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.