In Egypt today, everything is not as it seems. The long suffering Egyptian public has taken to the streets to challenge the sclerotic regime of Hosni Mubarak. But the decision to remove Mubarak before September, if it comes at all, awaits not simply the unfolding of popular revulsion of the regime, but a decision from the “deep state” -- the security forces, foremost among them the Egyptian army -- who today remain the source of power in Egypt and its tottering regime.
The military first appeared as the final arbiter of Egyptian politics in the summer of 1952. A small, clique of young army officers, dismayed the Egyptian defeat in Palestine, the serial failures of parliamentary life, and the arrogance of a waning imperial power, declared an end to the excesses of King Farouk. The Free Army Officers were lead by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose legacy is, after more than half a century, now being contested. Nasser, who initially was so unsure of his coup that he put up the reassuring General Mohammed Naguib as the public face of the new regime, would become the only Egyptian leader in the modern era who could claim both the adulation of the people and the army. Having removed the old regime and its hangers on in parliament and elsewhere, Nasser and his conspirators faced only one domestic challenge – from the Islamists of the Moslem Brotherhood who claimed their own competing vision of “Egypt for the Egyptians.”
A failed assassination attempt against Nasser by the Brotherhood unleashed the full anti-Islamist fury of the police state that the “deep state” believed then as now to be Egypt’s salvation and guarantee of security and stability. Its emboldened and forbidding institutions survived a humiliating defeat against Israel in June 1967 and Nasser’s death soon thereafter. Under Anwar Sadat’s leadership it wielded an iron fist not only against an Islamist political and social revival. It also imprisoned a growing chorus of secular nationalist critics and established an emergency regime whose excesses decades later are now on view for the world to see. Air Force General Hosni Mubarak stepped into the spotlight in the wake of Sadat’s assassination by an Islamist cabal of young officers. He has been terminally blinded by the power that the deep state invested in him --- alienating both popular and Islamist sentiments -- and he is now harvesting the bitter fruits of his choice.
The deep state is invested in Mubarak but it is even more determined to preserve the supreme place in Egypt’s political hierarchy that is the sole remaining legacy of Nasserism. Some among its leaders no doubt welcome the public’s fury against Mubarak and the NDP, for its has removed Gamal – and the challenge he and his nouveau rich civilian lackeys ilk represented -- from the impending contest for the presidency. Mubarak may believe that “the state is me (and my family)” [L’Etat et moi and mon famille] but if the crisis in Egypt continues to build and the focus of popular revolt moves from symbols of the regime – like the gutted NDP headquarters in Cairo’s Liberation Square -- to those of the “deep state” itself, Egypt’s generals will not be able to avoid the choice – save themselves and abandon the Mubaraks to the street or themselves become fodder for the revolution.
Even as the stakes of the popular revolt grow, the nature of this revolt has not yet fully materialized. The Islamist movement remains the sole organized popular force challenging the regime. Its organized absence from the streets may not a sign of its weakness but of its discipline and strength. The symbols of opposition are still popular and political. They unify rather than divide. The crowds are chanting for Mubarak to go and are torching the less controversial symbols of the regime.
The decision to deploy the army in place of exhausted police forces in the streets of Cairo and the appointment of Omar Suliman is a sign of the continuing support that the military places in the idea of Mubarak. But an ominous threshold has been crossed. The “deep state” now confronts the public directly and defensively; and in the public arena, not the shadows where it prefers to operate. If the regime now shows a mailed fist, it may target the Brotherhood as a means to divide the street. A sure sign of this epic confrontation will be the transformation of the symbols and rhetoric of revolt – from “Mubarak Out!” to “Islam is the Solution!” In the escalating battle between popular opinion and the coercive instruments of the state, the use of the army threatens to turn this extraordinary public spectacle from a cry for Mubarak’s ouster to the destruction of the state institutions themselves, foremost among them the armed forces . The former changes the conductor but not the music. The latter will produce a new score entirely.
Geoffrey Aronson is the director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington,DC and author of “From Sideshow to Center Stage – US Policy towards Egypt.”