Egypt’s Coup d'Etat


by Earl Picard, Ph.D.

Whatever occurred in Egypt last week, it is incomplete. “Some say the established order in the 'Arab World' has been upended,” writes the author. “I say that it is too early to tell.” The one fact that is certain is that the military remains in charge, as it has been for the past 60 years. “The military has overthrown itself, and replaced itself with itself.”


Egypt’s Coup d'Etat

by Earl Picard, Ph.D.

Now, virtually all modern states have taken the view, at least since Napoleon, that the ideal relation between civilian government and the military is the subordination of the latter to the former.” E.J. Hobsbawm, “Civilian Versus Military,” REVOLUTIONARIES, p.179

Emperor Mubarak is gone. There is joy and jubilation in the streets of Egypt, and rightfully so, since he embodied decades of pain, suffering and suppression borne by the Egyptian people. But, what have we witnessed, actually? Many say a revolution; the established order in the “Arab World” has been upended; this is the dawn of a new day; this represents fundamental change. I see little of that at this point. I say that it is too early to tell. Notwithstanding jubilation over Mubarak’s ouster, I say that what we have at this very moment is troubling politically if we understand what has happened and are clear on the direction that the regime in power is likely to follow. Let me share my reasoning.

Military regimes have ruled Egypt continuously since they overthrew King Farouk‘s regime in 1952 and destroyed the primacy of the monarchy in government. One of the coup leaders, General Neguib, was followed in 1956 by General Nassar who, upon his death in 1970, was followed by General Sadat who, upon his assassination in 1981, was followed by General Mubarak. The military has ruled continuously in Egypt for almost 60 years! After the recent events the military is still in control of the Egyptian state.

Mubarak was a man of the military but in the formal political order he was a democratically elected civilian. He civilianized the Egyptian military regime and carefully maneuvered them away from direct visibility. The regime introduced, tolerated, orchestrated and managed elections and, mainly to mollify world public opinion, they hewed to the democracy model, albeit in form more than substance. This was the framework that allowed Mubarak to step down from his military position and run for president as a civilian.

After the recent events the military is still in control of the Egyptian state.”

In that faux constitutional order there were scheduled elections in which various categories of citizens and groups of citizens and parties were denied participation. The first two presidential elections were dubbed referenda because no one was permitted to run but Mubarak. When he did finally permit elections there was widespread intimidation and chicanery and the results usually provided Mubarak with a resounding victory even as the people spat in the streets. Together with this sham constitutional democracy they imposed a suffocating and brutal security state and passed emergency laws to overlay the process. Most of the leading figures in government were sitting or former military generals. Practicing a democracy of contempt, Mubarak could and did claim to be the duly elected civilian president of Egypt. As the plan was unfolding, and if the events of the last month had not transpired, the election in September was to be another coronation for Mubarak or, worse still, the coronation of Mubarak’s son.

That was not to be. Mubarak’s departure came via a creeping, quiet, unannounced, inconspicuous, largely bloodless coup; but a coup nonetheless. Why do I say this?

In a coup de etat the military overthrows a civilian government (or, sometimes, another military regime) and assumes control of the state. By virtue of the fact that it is a coup, the constitution, should one exist, normally is suspended, repealed, repudiated or otherwise set aside. It no longer applies and it cannot since there is no provision in a sane constitution for the military to overthrow the civilian government.

Egypt had a constitutional order, however cynical and flawed. That order provided for Presidential succession. It stipulated that the Speaker of the Parliament was to succeed the president if he vacated his office. That did not happen. Instead, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has assumed responsibility for running the Egyptian state. There is no provision in the Egyptian constitution for a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to rule politically. It was presented as a fait accompli.

The Egyptian Parliament was an absent presence, an irrelevance before the Supreme Council abolished it and of no consequence now.

If the events of the last month had not transpired, the election in September was to be another coronation for Mubarak.”

The Vice President, former Intelligence Chief Suleiman, has become the face of the regime. Indeed, he assumed that role even before Mubarak’s departure. However, previously he was acting at the fully constitutional pleasure of the President. Following the resignation he now serves at the pleasure of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since the constitution did not provide for his succession to the Presidency. On his way out the door, according to the statement from Vice President Suleiman, Mubarak “tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state’s affairs.” In short, he stage managed the coup. The Egyptian constitution has been abrogated and the military is now fully in power. That is the classic definition of a coup.

The interests that were being served by the newly departed Mubarak, were much wider than his person. Mubarak was the face of a regime…let me repeat that… he was the face of a regime that represented a collection of interests, the military being prominent among them. The military is deeply embedded throughout the Egyptian economy and it owes that prominence to its central place in the political order. The ruling interests also included the traditionally entitled, crony capitalists - owners of large businesses and their organizations - whose fortunes, both literally and figuratively, depend on the stability of the Egyptian state in some form approaching the present configuration. It also included Mubarak’s extended collection of dependents, patrons and leeches. His departure will have instant and telling consequences for his hangers on. He has suffered the humiliation of being hustled off center stage but, for me, Mubarak’s departure is more symbolic than substantive at this point, save, as I noted, for the deprivations that he and his retinue will suffer as their fortunes are seized and frozen.

A military tribunal consisting of the same people and interests who were central to Mubarak’s tenure in power, now sits directly at the head of the state. The military has overthrown itself, and replaced itself with itself. This is no revolution. The point of a revolution is to gain political control of the state.

Mubarak’s departure is more symbolic than substantive at this point.”

This Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, according to its own pronouncements, is going to design and manage the new political dispensation. Do we really expect them to draw up a constitution and establish a political order in which their interests and the interests of their cohorts are undermined or overthrown? In which some other collection of interests gains control of the Egyptian state? I think not.

If the Egyptian people are going to pursue genuine revolution, or even substantive reform, they are going to have to see through this fiction. They have to accept that they are under military rule, that the current regime represents the same interests that dominated the Egyptian state under Mubarak, and that the military intends to stage manage the process so that the ruling order can reconsolidate power.

That outcome is not inevitable but it certainly is the path that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is set to follow. The real revolutionary moment for Egypt will come when the genuine social, political and economic aspirations of the Egyptian people come up against the entrenched interests of the ruling regime. That moment has not arrived.

The hurly burly negotiations and trade-offs that are to come will determine which way things will go. Mubarak’ s ouster was a necessary but not a sufficient condition for fundamental change. It could prove to be a farce if people are satisfied with that outcome and that outcome alone. Indications are that they will not be but the wily military regime still has ways of diffusing and deflecting substantive change. The issue is whether the people will be astute enough, and possessing of sufficient will to confront and offset the self-serving initiatives of the military and its minions. These things have yet to be determined. We need to pay careful attention to the political maneuvering that is likely to come. What happens going forward will be the real story.

Earl Picard is a political scientist who lives in Atlanta. He can be contacted at [email protected]