Forty years ago, the Who memorably warned that revolutions usually end in disappointment. “Meet the new boss/same as the old boss,” Roger Daltrey sang in 1971. With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepping down on Friday after being pushed aside by the country's powerful military, the people of Egypt—and the Obama administration—will soon find out whether that old lyric still holds true.
First, of course, Egyptians will have to find out who their new boss is, and that was not immediately clear. Late Thursday night, Mubarak tried to transfer authority to his hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman, but the announcement triggered widespread fury throughout Egypt and seemed virtually certain to lead to violence today. Instead, Egypt's Supreme Military Council stepped in a few hours ago to push out both Mubarak and Suleiman. Suleiman gave a brief statement on Egyptian state-owned television a short time ago announcing that Mubarak had formally stepped down and assigned the "higher council of the armed forces to run the affairs of the country." In a telling indicator of the country's shifting power dynamics, the spokesman for Egypt's military was standing directly behind Suleiman as the vice president announced that the military had supplanted him as the country's top authority.
On Friday, there was jubilation over the historic exit of Mubarak--the head of the Arab world's intellectual powerhouse and most populous nation. Virtually no Arab leader has ever left office voluntarily, with most instead remaining in power until they were killed, driven into exile, or forcibly deposed. Now that Mubarak has left the stage, the key question will become who else follows him out the door. During Mubarak’s 30 years as Egypt’s paramount ruler, he built an extensive power structure that included civilian allies such as Suleiman and Fathi Sorour, the speaker of the country’s parliament; the uniformed leadership of the country’s powerful armed forces; and the top officials of Egypt’s intelligence services and feared internal-security apparatuses. It wasn't immediately clear if Suleiman would follow Mubarak's lead and formally resign, but the military's move to assume power renders him largely irrelevant to the country's immediate future.
Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert at Kent State University who lived in the country for nine years, said, "This gives us a bit more insight into what happened yesterday: there was some kind of power struggle going on, and (Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed) Tantawi won. Omar Suleiman isn’t in control anymore. This is now a military government.”
Suleiman had offered token concessions to the protesters while rejecting more-substantive changes, such as the elimination of the country’s hated emergency laws, which allow the government to detain its political opponents without charge. His speech on Thursday night at times struck a threatening tone, as when he insisted that the nation will not “be driven into the dangers of chaos” and declared: “Oh, young men of Egypt … go back to your homes, go back to your jobs.”
Suleiman said Mubarak had “put the higher interest of the country above anything.” The lavish praise left Suleiman even more closely identified with Mubarak in the public eye, suggesting that despite his new authority, he will face enormous difficulty establishing himself as a legitimate agent of change to the protesters in the street.
“Suleiman is reading from the same script Mubarak has used for decades,” said Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He’s making cosmetic changes while trying to keep the regime itself intact.”
A popular joke had been making the rounds in the days before Mubarak’s surprise speech on Thursday: President Obama called Mubarak and said it was finally time for him to say good-bye to the Egyptian people. Mubarak was silent for a moment and then asked, “Why—where are they going?”
The punch line reflects Egypt’s ossified political culture, which has historically been dominated by autocratic leaders who stayed in office until they died or were driven out by opponents. Gen. Muhammad Naguib took power in 1953 after forcing the last Egyptian monarch to abdicate. Naguib was in office for just one year before being deposed and placed under house arrest. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Naguib’s successor, took power in 1956 and ruled the country until he died in 1970. Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, led the country from 1970 to 1981, when he was assassinated after signing a peace treaty with Israel. Mubarak has been in office ever since.
Now it’s Suleiman’s turn to try his hand as the country’s de facto rulert. Suleiman has enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship with Mubarak for decades, and the two men have similar military backgrounds. He is likely to draw support from Egypt’s powerful defense minister, Tantawi, who has been so publicly and privately deferential to the president over the years that a classified cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2008—and recently made public by WikiLeaks—said that younger Egyptian officers derided the defense minister as “Mubarak’s poodle.”
“Omar Suleiman is just Mubarak with a different name,” said Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the University of Exeter. “He will try to wear down the activists and keep them off-balance by using a combination of carrots and sticks. The threat of violence will always be there, and the carrots themselves will be poisoned.”
Suleiman is already using an array of tactics—many modeled on ones that Mubarak employed during his decades in office—to weaken the protest movement and buy more time for the regime. Suleiman held a high-profile meeting last week that included representatives of some—but not all—of the protesters as part of an effort to divide the opposition. He has issued vague promises to implement political reforms, but he pointedly ignored the Obama administration’s calls for broader outreach to opposition groups and a halt to the arrests and harassment of journalists and protesters. Suleiman has also been warning that the current unrest could lead to a military coup or a power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood, a clear attempt to frighten Western policymakers into backing off from their demands for Mubarak to step aside quickly.
Mubarak had said he would push forward a series of constitutional changes designed to open up the country’s insular political system and lead to the eventual lifting of the hated emergency laws. Dunne, who edits the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin, noted that if Suleiman were genuinely committed to reform, he could also champion changes now that would allow for a more reasonable amount of time for both sides to prepare for the upcoming elections
“It’s a little rich for them to suddenly argue that the constitution is sacrosanct and that they have no choice but to follow the letter of the law,” Dunne said, noting that Mubarak secured amendments to 34 articles of the constitution during March 2007 alone.
Mubarak loyalists have been deliberately vague about how far they’re willing to go in setting the stage for true multiparty elections. Egypt’s current constitution would make it virtually impossible for the opposition to mount a credible campaign for the presidency because only existing, legally recognized parties can nominate candidates, and those candidates must be party leaders who have held their positions for at least one year.
Dunne and other Egypt experts believed that the demonstrators weren't likely to abandon their effort to force Mubarak out, largely because of a belief that their numbers were the only thing keeping them safe from the country’s feared security forces.
It wasn't the first time that mass crowds of protesters faced such a decision.
In a recent essay, Ashour noted that in early 1954, 1 million Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to protest Nasser’s transformation of the country into what was effectively a military dictatorship.
Nasser said he would hold open and free elections that summer and promised to spend the intervening months implementing an array of political reforms. Abd al-Qadir Audeh, one of the leaders of the demonstrations, took Nasser at his word and asked the protesters to go home. Audeh was arrested hours later and executed, along with other protest leaders, the following year. Egypt’s current protesters are well aware of their country’s bloody political history. The question is whether Mubarak’s departure will effect whether it happens again.
This article appears in the February 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.