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Q+A: New Egypt: the power, the generals and the people

The army, which took charge after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, has vowed to get Egypt back to work and introduce civilian rule with swift elections.
/ Source: Reuters

The army, which took charge after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, has vowed to get Egypt back to work and introduce civilian rule with swift elections.

But alongside questions about whether it can meet the timetable, some ask to what extent the army wants to relinquish power.


Change in Egypt took just 18 days from the moment protests erupted to Mubarak's downfall. But Egypt's military did not show particular haste in taking power and some of its leaders seem uncomfortable with the political limelight. The army could have stepped in to take charge earlier, when it was clear anti-Mubarak protests had the momentum and numbers to force change. Instead, Mubarak had several throws of the dice to try to quell the masses before he finally handed power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on February 11.

"They have their own very large and comfortable arrangement within Egypt, and (prefer to) let the civilians take charge of the government. My strong sense is that there is no real desire at this point to prolong this period (of transition)," said one Western diplomat.


The army emerged as the only pillar of Egypt's establishment to survive the revolt intact. Mubarak's ruling party collapsed and the police crumbled. Most political groups are weak and fragmented after the Mubarak era, although they have sought to rally their forces to provide a counterweight to the military. Politicians, Islamists, academics, professionals and youth leaders formed a committee that wants dialogue with the army council. Ultimately, though, the real power to influence Egypt's fate lies with the street. Last Friday's protest of millions -- even without the rallying cry of ousting Mubarak to unite them -- was a celebration and a warning to the military or anyone else who tries to rule Egypt again without taking heed of its people.


Although the army may not seek to stay directly in charge longer than needed, it is almost certain to loom in the background when a future civilian government is in place.

It will want to guard privileges of its commanders, who have long found sinecure retirement posts in state firms and high administrative offices, seek to retain broad business interests and play what diplomats see as its role as Egypt's guardian.

The army may also see advantages in handing over power before tough decisions reach the desks of the generals. The army, still seen by many as the nation's savior, may start being seen as part of the problem. The budget deficit is climbing, tourists have abandoned Egypt and the anti-government protests have morphed into nationwide strikes. The army has banned industrial action, but has not said what it will do to those who disobey. Any action may be seen as taking sides.

The army may feel it needs to keep its neutral reputation so it has the credibility to step in later if it sees the need.


The sooner elections are held, the shorter the list of those in a position to capitalize will be. Mubarak's Egypt crushed dissent, routinely blocked the creation of new parties and co-opted registered political groupings to ensure no concerted opposition. Activists are now racing to organize. One new party, after a wait of 15 years, now has approval.

Some of the main actors at center stage in Egypt's political theater are youths who proved their ability to galvanize the masses and who seemed focused on building an Egypt where national pride trumps religious allegiances. They face a test of translating that into a coherent political movement.

The political arena remains fragmented but, ironically, the best organized force is the Muslim Brotherhood, the main target for political repression under Mubarak's rule. Some have said a quick transition would give them an edge over other groups.


The Muslim Brotherhood, banned from setting up a party under Mubarak, has a grassroots network. Wary of a clampdown, it took a cautious line early in the protests but gradually assumed a more prominent role. It still treads warily, saying it will not field a presidential candidate or seek a majority in parliament.

The real strength and popularity of the Brotherhood is not clear, given there are no reliable opinion polls. Analysts suggested it could have the backing of 20 to 40 percent of Egyptians, but no one truly knows. There is a strong current inside the Brotherhood that sees the political arena as just one way of winning over society to its vision of a pluralistic, democratic, Islamic state. It has a broad network of social support for the poor. Political power might even sully its reputation, given that a new government may need to deflate some of the wild hopes Egyptians have about how lives will change.

There are other Islamic trends in Egypt, including al-Gama'a al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) which launched an armed rebellion in the 1990s but was crushed by security. The group held its first meeting in 15 years but stuck to its vow of non-violence.


Given the anger on the streets toward everything associated with Mubarak's rule, it would seem miraculous if Mubarak's allies could recover. Many former ministers and business executives linked to his ruling party are under investigation.

But some of those most closely associated with Mubarak have been left off the list, and the network of interests and allies extends far beyond the dozen or so Mubarak officials or members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) now being probed. "We have in the governorates of Egypt and even in Cairo, remnants of the Mubarak regime and people from the NDP, local leaders, trying now to use this enthusiasm of young people to establish new associations and political parties under the name of 25th of January," said analyst Diaa Rashwan, referring to the date of the first mass protests that led to the revolution.

In the fragmented political arena of post-revolutionary Egypt, those with wealth, whatever its source, may still be able to win power and influence in elections where voting for decades has been determined by thuggery, bribery and manipulation.