Why Egypt’s Generals Need Mubarak – as a Whipping Boy

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The decision by Egypt’s current rulers to drag former President Hosni Mubarak and his sons into court next week to investigate allegations of corruption and abuses of power is certainly a crowd-pleaser: The demand for action against the leading lights of the ancien regime had been the key demand of the tens of thousands of protestors who gathered last Friday at Tahrir Square to renew their revolutionary vows. And pleasing the crowd through the ritual humiliation of the erstwhile dictator — or at least defusing popular anger to the point that only a hard core remain on the streets, who can be dealt with more harshly —  may, in fact, suit the purposes of the generals who ousted Mubarak on February 11.  Mubarak’s fate is of limited significance to the question of power in Egypt now that he has been ousted. And it is the transfer of power, not the fate of those driven from office,  that defines a revolution.

“Revolution”, in fact, remains an aspiration rather than an achievement in post-Mubarak Egypt. What happened on February 11 could be better defined as a popular coup d’etat: Faced with the political crisis created by an unyielding and sustained nationwide protest movement, Egypt’s military chiefs seized power and forced out Mubarak. Driven less by any democratic instinct than by the need for stability and the protection of the military’s core interests, the generals adopted the language of the revolution and  reshuffled the personnel of the regime, and moved to resolve the political crisis by creating some form of democratic process, on its own terms, for electing a more representative government.

Any illusion that February 11 put power in the hands of the risen population on the streets would have  been quickly dashed when the military authored their own version of a transition process — constitutional changes to allow for a genuinely competitive democratic election to be held this Fall —  and won backing for it from 77% of Egypt’s voters in a referendum. The fact that the Tahrir Square protest movement opposed that schema, demanding that an entirely new constitution first be drawn up and space and time be given for more political parties to emerge organically made little difference: “The Revolution” did not win power on February 11, and the generals’ — with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition party — managed to convince the overwhelming majority of referendum voters to back the military’s plan. Repression of the more hard-core element on the streets has continued.

Revolution? Not yet, anyway. January 25 changed the personnel in control of the regime, and even reordered the balance of power among its various institutions — renaming the State Security service and narrowing its mandate, for example — but it did not remove the regime itself.

Unlike Libya’s personality cult system, the structure of power in Egypt was not created around the dictator and his family. Indeed, Egypt’s military-based regime preceded Mubarak, who  inherited the reins in a moment of crisis from the slain Anwar Sadat, who in turn had inherited them from Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thirty years later, in another moment of crisis, Mubarak was forced to relinquish control. But the regime has survived intact, although it is in a state of flux, and seeks a new social compact to guarantee stability and ensure the vital interests of the institution at its core, i.e. the Egyptian military. (Indeed, it’s worth remembering the WikiLeaks cables that revealed unhappiness among the generals to any intention on Mubarak’s part to appoint his son as his own successor.)

The generals don’t necessarily have a grand plan for remaking Egypt, but they appear to have an instinct to adapt to a changing situation in a manner that protects their core interests. They recognized the need to get rid of the reviled first family, and to allow some form of democratic process to choose a new government. But they have generally done the minimum required to calm things down and end the political crisis by defusing the grievances that fueled the protest movement, hoping that this would demobilize the greater majority of erstwhile protestors, and then cracking down harshly on more hardcore groups trying to reclaim the streets.

Last Friday’s demonstrations were by far the largest seen in Tahrir Square since February 11, and their central demand was for action against Mubarak and his cronies. The scale of the demonstration, and the fact that they were reported to include many working class and religious folk — sectors beyond the facebook-enabled liberal urban middle class — may have prompted the military rulers to to escalate legal action against Mubarak & Sons. The erstwhile ruling family are ultimately expendable to a regime looking to create conditions for the long-term stability to which Mubarak had become an obstacle. Indeed, to the extent that he personifies the old order in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians, Mubarak even becomes a useful whipping boy to his successors: Putting the Mubaraks in the stocks allows the Military Council to offer Egyptians a pleasing spectacle of revolution — without necessarily conceding much of the substance that the term implies.