Go Down, Pharaoh

Egypt's president may be on his way out—but will this be a full-fledged revolution or a palace coup?

What a pathetic old brute Hosni Mubarak has become. Here he is telling ABC that he'd love to give up power, really he would, but he's afraid Egypt would collapse into chaos without his steady hand at the wheel. Meanwhile, the country has been doing a pretty good job of keeping order while Mubarak's state withers away, as neighbors band together to direct traffic, clean the streets, treat the wounded, and protect lives and property. It's Mubarak and his mobs who have been the fountainhead of chaos: Again and again, protesters have captured a looter, a vandal, or a stone-throwing, machete-wielding goon, only to discover he was carrying police ID. If you're looking for violence on the rebels' side, the worst that you can definitively say is that when Mubarak's heavies attacked the demonstrators camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, many of the campers fought back. And can you blame them for that?

Nonetheless, Mubarak is posing as the foe of the disorder he did more than anyone else to unleash. He has also sacked some ministers, promised to leave office later in the year, and detained the chief of the secret police. All this as his allies beat and bully reporters and seize or destroy their equipment. It's a disorienting combination of heavy-handed coercion and tentative concessions. 

But no matter how many cameras are smashed and campers are shot, the Day of Departure rallies keep swelling and Mubarak keeps making nervous promises of change. The momentum is with the rebellion, not the repression. That's why the president looks so pathetic right now. He's spent decades assembling a potent police state, and still he's losing.

Perhaps that isn't how you expect such events to play out. If you mention the idea of a revolution driven by civil disobedience rather than violence, you're apt to hear the old saw that such revolts only work in countries with good-hearted leaders at the reins, not savage regimes held together by torture and terror. But contrary to the popular stereotype, Gandhian uprisings don't succeed by shaming rulers until they can't bring themselves to crack down. They succeed by delegitimizing authority—by breaking the braces that support the structures of social control, so the rulers can't crack down. Political power is not a pyramid fixed in stone. It's a complex, dynamic ecology of shifting loyalties and allegiances. When those loyalties and allegiances shift swiftly and in sufficient numbers, the result is a revolution.

When you watch Hosni Mubarak's lethal crackdown in Egypt, you're watching a cornered creature lashing out as its options disappear. The man may manage to hold onto power through sheer brutality, but his chances of pulling that off are diminishing each day; time and again, the old thug's tactics have backfired, strengthening rather than diminishing the opposition. The revolutionaries are driving wedges between the president and the forces he has relied on to stay in office. When Mubarak tries to fight back, he only succeeds in shoving the wedges in further.

On a global level, for instance, Mubarak is being pried from his foreign patrons. Egypt is the world's fourth largest recipient of U.S. aid, with only Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel receiving more money. But in the last week Washington has gradually edged away from its ally in Cairo, as it became more clear that the strongman valued for his ability to impose "stability" is presiding over an increasingly unstable society. No, the Obama administration hasn't endorsed the demonstrations—when Mubarak's brownshirts assaulted the protest in Tahrir Square, Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley responded with a mealy-mouthed request for "all sides" to avoid violence. But the crackdown has deeply damaged Mubarak's relationship with the United States. This isn't the quiet repression that takes place in the country's back alleys and jail cells, the sort of everyday authoritarianism that the American authorities can wink at (or even take advantage of themselves, if there's an "enhanced interrogation" to be done). This repression is loud, it's public, and—now that the president's loyalists are attacking the international press—it's falling on American citizens as well as Egyptians. Even Crowley condemned it. Now the Senate has passed a resolution asking Mubarak to go, and America's diplomats are reportedly pushing for the same thing.

Mubarak had already seen one major act of repression backfire, when his Internet shutdown did far more to injure the Egyptian economy—and to make him look like a tyrant—then it did to stop any movement from mobilizing. With this week's clampdown, he has made it steadily harder for his most powerful global ally to stand by him.

Domestically, meanwhile, there's a wedge between Mubarak and the military. From the first day of the protests, the Egyptian army has presented itself as a neutral party, at one point declaring that the demonstrators' demands are "legitimate" and that it would not use force against the crowds.

Needless to say, that doesn't mean the army joined the uprising. The same troops who refused to shoot the demonstrators also refrained from intervening when the president's supporters assaulted Tahrir Square. And when Mubarak appointed a new government, the grassroots opposition wasn't appeased, but the army brass surely appreciated the ascension of their man Omar Suleiman to the vice presidency. Nonetheless, it's telling that Mubarak has had to rely on undercover cops and mobs-for-hire to do his dirty work. The country's biggest arsenal hasn't been his to command, and the people who do command it have been asserting their independence.

If it were up to Egypt's generals, we'd see a smooth transition to a new strongman—an outcome that probably isn't that far from what Washington wants. And that, minus the smoothness, is what we might ultimately get. But there may be another wedge at work, and it could change the endgame entirely: a wedge detaching the officers from the rank and file.

It doesn't matter what the generals want if ordinary soldiers won't follow their orders, a lesson several dictators and would-be dictators have learned the hard way. Egypt has a conscript army, and many soldiers surely sympathize more with their friends, relatives, and neighbors in the streets than with the men issuing commands. The police are more closely tied to Mubarak's regime, but a similar dynamic is at work in their ranks as well. There have been reports of policemen fraternizing with protesters, removing their uniforms, refusing to fill their assigned social role. The more the momentum turns toward the opposition, the less risk there will be for other cops and soldiers to follow suit.

If you're wondering what will happen after Mubarak falls, this may be the most important wedge to watch. If the revolution ultimately hinges on the generals switching sides, the military that already dominates the government will have the central role in deciding what happens next. That doesn't have to mean the police state will continue. Chile's transition from the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship to democracy and civil liberties happened after the armed forces refused to impose martial law, with one general heroically tearing up an order right in front of the despot. But if the military coopts this revolution, Egypt will likely end up with Suleiman or someone like him as president, a few token reforms, and little else. If the revolution relies on a mutiny in the enforcers' lower ranks, by contrast, the rebellion is much less likely to be reduced to a backdrop for a palace coup.

If there's an iron law of politics, it's that everything can always get worse. But if you want a reason to be optimistic about Egypt, there's this: Unlike a coup, an invasion, or anything involving a vanguard party, a people-power revolution strengthens rather than disrupts civil society. Of all the ways a regime can fall, this is the path that's most likely to lead to a freer country. When it comes to political models, the liberated zone in Tahrir Square beats a barracks any day.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tim||

    Very Batmanesque skewed photo.

  • ||

    Wow. Those are nice M1 Abrams. Where do you get those?

  • -||

    You mean the peace-keeping tanks?

  • ||

    yeah! Every time I see one of them, I wanna sing, "America, Fuck Yeah!!"

  • Tim||

    Yeah great idea selling those iconic Yankee machines to dictatorships. Maybe we'll get a kid with a lunch pail facing them down moment.

  • ||

    That is what I was thinking.... I couldn't believe we sold these to a fucking dictatorship. Watching them get used against Israel would be a hoot.

  • omg||

    I was thinking that myself. I figured no one would notice the M60A1s were from America, but the M1s are pretty distinct.

    Oddly enough, it seems we didn't sell them any, but instead greenlighted a factory to produce local copies.

  • Restoras||

    What a brilliantly stupid idea.

  • ||

    Licensed production of military hardware is a long, time-honored tradition.

    Japan produces local versions of F-15s (their F-1) and F-16s (their F-2). The Soviets and now the Russians were notorious for doing this.

    Both side of the Cold War participated.

  • Wind Rider||

    It is a rather 'convenient' way to have the plausible deniability that we didn't 'sell' them to the Egyptians - nice touch that we provided the 0% down dealer financing, as well.

    Ultimately, this isn't to say the Egyptians wouldn't have clamored to buy elsewhere - but then, they already tried that, and are familiar with the result. Sure, the Soviet equipment they bought by the boatload years back was cheaper, but they ditched it pretty much for some of the same reasons my Uncle made a lot of money as a Caterpillar sales rep in the region back in the 60's and 70's - the Soviet built junk was not suitable for use in a desert environment, broke down constantly, and spare parts were usually shoddy, and maintenance work was regularly botched by surly Russian techs who were in no hurry to leave the relative Mediterranean luxury to head back to their typically sub-zero worker's paradise. Hence, the Egyptians scraped a lot of those contracts in favor of Western (read - US) equipment.

  • Realist||

    Yeah, America made the Egyptians idiots.

  • MWG||

    Who said that?

  • Restoras||

    Seriously, why in hell did we sell Egypt Abrams tanks?

  • Mo||

    Because our $1.3 B in military aid is welfare for American defense contractors. We send them $1.3 B and tell them they have to use it on American hardware.

  • Old Salt||

    Same reason we give M16's to the Mexican Armed Forces!

    Though, unlike Egypt,the poorly paid grunts in the Mexican Military usually turn right around and sell Uncle Sam's gifts straight to the Cartels...

  • Wind Rider||

    Plus, as mentioned before, it was a leftover move from the defunct anti-Soviet influence chess game, and as a party favor for making nice with the Israelis. The Egyptians actually got stripped down versions, which still performed in a desert environment a lot more reliably than the Soviet equipment they "bought" from Moscow. The Soviet's big screw up was shipping them junk, then acting like this gave them the perogative to seriously tell the Egyptians what to do, expecting a big Spasiba for doing so.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    "spicy balls" is Russian for thank you

  • ||

    Do you have any idea how many F-16s we've sold to governments all over the world?

  • Jefe||

    A plethora?

  • Sheldon Richman||

    Brilliant!

  • jtuf||

    I'm hoping for democratic reform, but I think a palace coup might be more likely.

  • Jerry||

    They need a palace coup in order to get a new constitution that doesn't favor the NDP party of Mubarak and his gang.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Unfortunately, the new constitution will probably also be much less bashful in its guarantee of Islamic theocratic government. With added legitimacy because The People put it in place.

  • ||

    A "people-power revolution", yes, but a people with sharia in mind big time:
    http://pewglobal.org/2010/12/0.....hezbollah/

    Islam plays a positive role in Politics for 85% of those people.
    And:
    82% favor stoning for adultery
    77% favor mutilation for theft/robbery
    84% favor death penalty for apostasy

    Their vision of democracy is only that of an election system. Otherwise they’re rabid Islamists.

  • herp||

    DERP

  • ||

    And they don't feel lonely.

  • Imp of the Perverse||

    So?

  • ||

    Well, the outcome will quite probably be even worse, for the people. The problem is deeper than "just" a bad government. Many people there are at the bottom of things, but they keep digging. Because there’s no solution in sharia. It’s terrible, the opening of an abscess without sterilizing.

  • herp||

    One thousand people do not dictate the will of more than 79 million. I'm sorry.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    If 70 million people vote themselves the "right" to remove the heads of the apostates among the remaining 13 million, then you are talking about a mob made up of 70 million aspiring mass-murderers and nothing more legitimate. It shouldn't even need to be pointed out to you that when a majority of people view disagreement with them as punishable by death, the minority will shrink either because they are killed or because they join the majority to avoid such a fate. It shouldn't need to be pointed out because ESPECIALLY if these majority opinions were the pure unimposed opinions of the majority and even if the majority was 99.9999%, they would all belong in a prison the minute they acted or passed a law allowing them to act on these beliefs.

  • Imp of the Perverse||

    Then perhaps democracy is thing they don't need. Perhaps the U.S. government's policy of "spreading democracy" around the world has been an error. As you suggest, democracy is no panacea. Maybe we'd do better to look around for a descendant of Ptolemy.

  • Wisdom||

    The first part is right: spreading democracy by itself is not the right system of government. The right system is the one that protects individual rights. Democracy is not the best way to do that, but a republic is, which is sort of like a compromise between unlimited majority-rule and allowing your the descendants of your previous ruler rule forever.

  • Wisdom||

    The first part is right: spreading democracy by itself is not the right system of government. The right system is the one that protects individual rights. Democracy is not the best way to do that, but a republic is, which is sort of like a compromise between unlimited majority-rule and allowing your the descendants of your previous ruler rule forever.

  • ||

    Dictatorship is wrong for sure, but they won’t get anything else as long as they want to live under their God’s law. In the contrary, they’ll be even more enslaved. They are drilled to believe that only Sharia can save them, in this world and the next, whereas it’s just the largest door to hell, right here, the worst dictatorship ever invented. And thus free elections won’t change a thing. What they need of democracy is at the other end of it: individual freedoms, of speech, of opinion, of religion, of association. Empowerment. And what they now want, some 80pc of them is a totalitarian system that controls each and every aspects of their lives. Something like that probably never happened before. So many people who literally pray for getting enslaved.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    (So?)?!?!

    What the fuck do mean "So?"? Murder for theological offences, including the murder of anyone who becomes a non-believer in the state religion, is not okay just because it's the product of fucking majority opinion. I agree that we should do nothing and that our intervention would only make things worse but the amount of dishonesty involved with moaning about "oh the oppressed people under this brutal dictatorship" then saying "So?" when someone points out the likelyhood that an even more oppressive and murderous totalitarian regime will replace it is horrible.

  • Number 2||

    Hey man....it's a Democracy Movement, so we have to approve it!

  • Imp of the Perverse||

    Wow, you read as much into polls as you do into the word "so". Since I am not, like you, a direct descendant of Nostradamus, I shall wait and see what happens and hope for the best.

  • Realist||

    It won't end well....as usual.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    Seems like Mubarak is having some success trying to coopt the demonstration. The tanks keep them herded in one place, preventing them from marching on the president's palace. Various regime heavies are touring the crowd for the benefit of state tv. The VP asking them to go home, but saying they will not be forced. Seems like a stalemate. It's all part of Mubarak's tolerance, and liberal attitude on dissent. The US's "violence on both sides" BS only helps.

    I've heard some demonstrators say they have no choice, they can't back down, because if they do, they will just be rounded up one by one over the next days, weeks, and months. It seems like there is a real reverse panopticon dynamic, in a real physical sense there. It's not just that they could be individually targeted and rounded up if they disband, but that their fellow demonstrators would not be able to witness it. Around the corner, down the street, behind an apartment door, is too far out of site. By keeping together in the open square, they prevent individual targeting, but they also can watch over each other and witness the abuses en masse, which is crucial to their safety. At this point, that safety seems like it is as important a function of the gathering as is their announcing to the regime their demands. They can't break up or it's all over.

  • Jesse Walker||

    That's a really fascinating point.

  • Mark||

    This is exactly what I believe happened with the recent demonstrations in Iran.

  • Wind Rider||

    ^^this. The advantage the teocracy in Iran enjoyed was that they've constantly been anticipating and preparing for the bronc that is the Iranian people to buck from being saddled. Thus they were more prepared to disrupt and infiltrate the opposition communications and thus organizing capability. Plus, they've had no reluctance whatsoever of coming down hard, and fast, any time trouble starts brewing.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Plus, they've had no reluctance whatsoever of coming down hard, and fast, any time trouble starts brewing.

    Bingo. If their thugs killed and maimed a few protestors, what was anyone going to do about it? Condemn them? Put up sanctions? Iran's leaders couldn't care less.

    Honestly, Mubarak was hosed the minute the army decided to remain neutral and let the protestors gather, and then let the protestors protect themselves when they were attacked. The Egyptian military could have squashed this whole thing within two days if they had decided to get rough with the protestors, and the rest of the world would have been impotent to stop it. It's generally a maxim that most dictators, emperors, executive leaders, etc., only retain their power because their military allows them to. The minute that support goes, that leader tends to not stay in power long.

    Tunisia and Egypt didn't learn a damn thing from Iran--in that part of the world, protest has to be put down fast and hard and with no scruples, or the whole thing will keep building on itself. By the time Mubarak sent his camel-jockeys into the fray, it was already too late to stop it, and now he's about to be put out with his tail between his legs.

  • ||

    Kind of like a herd of buffalo forming a circle, all facing outward to monitor & defend agianst a threat.

  • Realist||

    I see out of the blue, liberal trolls show up! Liberals have such a hard time distinguishing between a demonstration/protest and a riot.

  • ||

    "It's a disorienting combination of heavy-handed coercion and tentative concessions."
    --Jesse Walker

    "This calls for a very delicate blend of psychology and extreme violence"
    --Vyvyan Basterd, The Young Ones

  • ||

    I am going to start reading Jesse with Vyvyan's voice in my head. I don't have a choice.

    And, unfortunately, I think it works all too well:

    What a pathetic old brute Hosni Mubarak has become.
  • Jesse Walker||

    At least you aren't reading me with Rick's voice in your head.

  • ||

    "Oh? Have we got a vid-e-o?"

  • Bryan Alexander||

    "And for tonight's program, Mr. Balofksky will be played by Hosni Mubarak."

  • ||

    One thousand people do not dictate the will of more than 79 million.

    You are apparently unacquainted with the history and practice of government and the state.

  • herp||

    I am not. I was obviously talking about the sample size of the questionnaire in Egypt.

  • ||

    Still here!

  • ||

    If there's an iron law of politics, it's that everything can always get worse.

    Well, there are actually several Iron Laws. You have happened upon one that has been a candidate for elevation for some months now.

  • ||

    Why did Obama roll out the red carpet for Chinese dictator Hu but turn his back on dictator Mubarak? Is it because Hu cracks down on Christians and others seeking to peaceably exercise their rights while Mubarak cracks down on Muslim fundamentalists? Is this just more of Obama's kowtowing to the Muslim world?

    This man is selling America and her allies down the river. Just like Bill Clinton traded our nuclear secrets to the Red Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions, Obama has traded Britain's nuclear secrets to Russia in exchange for the START treaty.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new.....rets.html#

    As embarrassing as WikiLeaks can be, it serves its purpose. After all, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

  • Mr. Mark||

    I understand that declaring one's optimism about Egypt is the current fad in the hipster world, but I'm mostly unhappy about this.

    Certainly, the Mubarak regime stinks. Certainly, there should be a better government in Egypt. But there isn't, and I don't see much to make me think that there will be any time soon.

    I expect that Mubarak's ouster is a done deal. But I don't think that what comes next will be anything to hold up as an example of individual freedom and tolerance.

    This is the home of Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mohamed Atta. The Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood are no fans of democracy and no fans of individual rights. Even worse, and of greatest concern to me, is that Islamists are not often content to bully just those in their immediate vicinity. They want to "spread the wealth" to other lands.

    This is where Libertarian platforms break down and collapse. If we just leave everyone else alone, won't they just return the favor? No. They won't. This rebellion in Egypt threatens a corrupt despot's grip on power, but it also threatens the West. If a secular, classically-liberal government arises in Egypt with respect for individual rights and a genuine intent to maintain good relations with the West, then great - outstanding - wonderful. But I'll believe it when I see it.

    I think the democratic republics of the West will lose the ability to quickly move warships between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

    I think that the factions that will come to power in Egypt will intentionally or unintentionally create the conditions for another, and extremely destructive - possibly nuclear - Arab-Israeli war.

    I think that Islamist fanatics will capitalize upon these developments to advance their noxious agenda.

  • Imp of the Perverse||

    This is where Libertarian platforms break down and collapse. If we just leave everyone else alone, won't they just return the favor? No. They won't.

    How do you know this? We've never tried leaving these people alone. The West, as you call it, has been redrawing boarders, staging coups, and playing soldier in their lands for generations. And we wonder why they dislike us? How would we feel if China decided to keep Obama in power for thirty years? Or if they set up military bases in America? Hey, you never know, it might even happen some day.

  • ||

    Certainly, the Mubarak regime stinks. Certainly, there should be a better government in Egypt. But there isn't, and I don't see much to make me think that there will be any time soon.

    IOW: "Stay with your abusive boyfriend because he's the only one who will ever love you."

    I expect that Mubarak's ouster is a done deal. But I don't think that what comes next will be anything to hold up as an example of individual freedom and tolerance.

    Maybe not, but does that mean incremental social tolerance and individual freedom gains are not acceptable?

    This is where Libertarian platforms break down and collapse.

    No, it doesn't; your inability to comprehend national defense as a legitimate function of government does.

    If we just leave everyone else alone, won't they just return the favor?

    IOW: "We need to oppress them before they oppress us. After all, they aren't really ready for freedom."

    If a secular, classically-liberal government arises in Egypt with respect for individual rights..

    If that government arises in the U.S., be sure to let everyone know.

  • Susan||

    Hosni Mubarak certainly seems to think he is the pharoah, but the people have a much better word for it: dictator. The US and Israeli government (who will cling to any Middle Eastern government willing to give them their support) have kept very quiet and neutral since the protests first broke out. Obviously they are withholding their comments until they see which direction the tide has turned. The people of Egypt have made it clear that it's not specifically Mubarak that they are protesting, but the regime of oppression and subjugation. They are unwilling to accept any part of the current administration, or any replacement like it. That seems to me the greatest evidence in their favor that they will not settle for another dictator or totalitarian. This is a country that has a real chance to stage a true revolution and earn their democratic freedom.

    Susan - Paralegal Schools professional

  • TheCheeseStandsAlone||

    Kiss your sweet "comfort zone"
    ass goodbye, America, as
    the next domino to fall
    will be Saudi Arabia
    (home of 18 of the 19 9/11
    airline hijackers)...

    We all know what that means...

    Cheese

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