The massive protests that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s departure have been widely described as a revolution. And that’s fine. If there is an Internet revolution, a Reagan revolution, and even an Obama revolution, then there has certainly been an Egyptian revolution. But there is another meaning of revolution that applies specifically to events like the French, Russian, or Chinese Revolutions. In this sense of the word, Egypt has not yet had a revolution; and the success of the protests will depend ultimately on whether it does have one. To add a further complication, whether Egypt does have a revolution could depend on American foreign policy.
Revolutions with a capital “R” don’t consist merely in replacing one set of governing officials with another, but in the transformation of the state itself—in the destruction and replacement of the older basis of state power. Revolutions produce a new form of government, and a new relationship between the government and the different classes and groups in a country. The French Revolution, for instance, spelled the end of France’s monarchy and the feudal class that sustained it.
What is the basis of state power? Max Weber (citing Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the Russian Revolution) wrote in his 1919 essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” that a “state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” That allows a government in the last resort to use armed force to defend itself against its foes. Revolutions have begun as large sections of a country’s police and armed forces go over to the side of the strikers or demonstrators; but they have sometimes devolved into civil war. In State and Revolution, Lenin wrote of “smashing the state” as a prerequisite of revolution; he didn’t mean creating anarchy; but rather seizing and dismantling the old regime’s source of power and replacing it with a new one.
In Egypt in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser and a group of mid-level officers staged a coup that became a true revolution. They took control of the military and ousted King Farouk and his government. In place of Farouk’s monarchy, which had enjoyed the support of the senior military, but had also subordinated itself to British imperial interests, Nasser and the Free Officers installed what became a military oligarchy that was hidden behind the façade of what the 1956 Constitution called a “democratic republic.”
Over the next decades, through a succession of constitutions and constitutional amendments, the military created a regime headed by a president who was drawn directly from their ranks; a ruling party, the National Democratic Party, that did its bidding; and a National Assembly that was invariably controlled by the National Democratic Party. Egyptian presidents enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy—Nasser ousted and put on trial senior officers, after the Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967 against Israel, but Nasser’s successors, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, came from and were backed by the military. Leading cabinet officials and a majority of Egypt’s governors also come from the military.
In addition, the Egyptian military has gained a foothold in the Egyptian economy. As Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations writes in Ruling but not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria and Turkey, Egypt’s military is active in “everything from weapons production and procurement to the manufacture of appliances and footwear, agriculture, food processing, and services related to aviation, security, engineering, land reclamation, and tourism.” The military has been Egypt’s ruling class, even if, as Cook shows, they have not directly governed Egypt. Indeed, their largely invisible role protected them from public censure, which was directed at the president. Only when the president was directly threatened, as occurred during the 1977 Bread Riots or the recent protests, did their political role become visible.
This year’s revolt against Mubarak had many of the outward characteristics of a revolution. It seemed to reach its initial objective of toppling the president so quickly because the military did not try to quash the demonstrators. But the actual situation is far more ambiguous. As Stratfor’s George Friedman speculates, the military might have tacitly encouraged the revolt against Mubarak in reaction to Mubarak’s determination to install his banker son as his successor, which would have threatened the military’s ascendancy. And what has happened since Mubarak’s fall is even more ambiguous.
Instead of establishing a transition government that includes leaders of the rebellion, the military has formally seized power. To be sure, given the lack of formal leadership among the demonstrators, the military may have had little choice. Still, the military now explicitly rules Egypt in the way that it did after the 1952 revolution. The military will have the final say in establishing a new constitution and setting up elections. And the military has refused to overturn Egypt’s infamous Emergency Law that allows it to imprison political opponents without cause. In short, while the demonstrations may have suggested the outline of new leadership, and while the demonstrators have warned of further trouble if the military attempts to perpetuate the status quo, state power in Egypt remains formally exactly where it was before the protestors took to the streets.
For a revolution to take place, the military will have to cede much of its power to a new civilian government. Is that possible? Can a military oligarchy voluntary cede power without having to be forced to do so? It did not happen in Algeria after the upheavals of the 1980s, but something like that appears to be happening in Turkey, where the military, which had held power since 1923, seems to be acquiescing in the creation of a genuine civilian government. One reason that has happened in Turkey is that its leaders have wanted to join the European Union. In order to do so, Turkey has had to democratize its government. So outside pressure has been critical.
In Egypt, the United States is in a prime position to exert outside pressure because of the $1.3 billion in aid annually that it gives to Egypt’s armed forces. It could use the threat of withdrawing this aid to demand that Egypt’s military cede power; or by reaffirming its unequivocal support for Egypt’s military leaders, it could bolster their determination to avoid any except cosmetic changes. The U.S. role is not necessarily decisive, but it is more important than that of any other foreign country.
What should the Obama administration do? According to a recent New Republic editorial, the answer is obvious. By promoting democratization in Egypt, the U.S. is promoting its own national interests. But while I agree with the conclusion of this argument, I don’t think the choice is that simple.
American aid to and ties with Egypt’s military were initially based on Egypt’s support in the cold war, Egypt’s willingness to make peace with Israel, and Egypt’s support in the oil-geopolitics of the Middle East. The cold war is over, but the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians rages, Iran threatens to upset the Middle East balance of power, and the region’s pro-American dictators could find themselves under siege from demonstrators inspired by a new Egypt. That creates a dilemma for American foreign policy.
If the United States were to use its clout to demand that the military cede power, that could lead to an Egyptian government that was adamantly, and not merely nominally, opposed to the status quo in Israel and the occupied territories; that opposed the use of military force against a recalcitrant Iran; and that supported demonstrators against the Gulf’s pro-American monarchs. Of course, that would be a true of a government that was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, but it could equally well happen under secular democratic leaders. Secular politicians, including notably Mohammed ElBaradei, have rejected Israel’s blockade of Gaza, protested Netanyahu government’s indifference to the peace process, and are not likely to take the same position as the United States on the Gulf states and Iran. If the Obama administration wants to ensure continuity in its foreign policy in the Middle East, then it would be better off backing those elements in the Egyptian military that are unwilling to cede control over foreign policy to a freely elected government.
The choice, in other words, does not simply involve what the United States should do in Egypt, but in the entire region. My own view is that given the choice between promoting Egypt’s revolution and ensuring continuity in its own foreign policy, the Obama administration should change its policies toward the Middle East to accommodate the demand for democracy in Egypt. Not on every issue, nor toward every country, but toward the Netanyahu government, the Palestinians, and the dictators under siege in the Gulf and North Africa. That would include pressing rather than discouraging a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah (which is a prerequisite for meaningful negotiations over a Palestinian state), using the threat of withdrawing American aid—as George H.W. Bush did in 1991—to bring the Netanyahu government to the negotiating table, and distancing American policy from Arab rulers in the Gulf.
That’s not an easy choice for the Obama administration to make, especially as it has been weakened by last November’s elections, and faces a range of challenges on the domestic front leading up to the 2012 election. The subsequent uproar from the oil states and from the Netanyahu government’s supporters in the U.S. could cost Obama and the Democrats the election in 2012. And the strategy could also backfire, creating a new arc of instability in the Middle East as well as in the South Asia. Given these possible consequences, I expect that the administration will not redefine its foreign policy—that it will tacitly support the Egyptian military’s efforts to co-opt revolt against Mubarak, allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester, and as it has already begun to do, respond equivocally to revolts in Gulf states and North Africa. Egypt could still have its revolution, but it will be a lot harder for the demonstrators, who lack a united leadership, to reduce the military’s hold over state power without outside pressure from the United States.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.