Hosni Mubarak has gone and the military high command in Egypt has taken over power in his stead. In hindsight it appears that the military top brass very cleverly choreographed Mubarak's removal in order to achieve two ends. First, by distancing itself from the crumbling authority of the president it aimed to demonstrate to the protestors that the military was not opposed to their demands and aspirations. Second, by permitting a certain amount of anarchy in Cairo and elsewhere it intended to create enough fear of chaos among the general public that the latter would come to appreciate the army's role as the keeper of order in the last resort.
The crowds in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt have a right to be euphoric; after all, they had done the unthinkable and brought down the pharaoh in just 18 days. However, it will be a tragedy if such euphoria turned into complacency. Despite the conciliatory rhetoric emanating from the military brass, the officer corps as an institution continues to have a vested interest in the political and economic power structure created and preserved by the regime under Sadat and Mubarak. To expect the military to relinquish its corporate interests for the sake of popular welfare is likely to turn out to be delusion.
The hard task of bringing the military under civilian and democratic control begins now with the departure of Mubarak. One should not underestimate either the staying power of the military or its capacity to seek revenge on those who attempt to force it out of the political arena. It took Turkey sixty years, from 1950 to 2010 - from the first democratic elections to the Ergenekon affair - to impose a respectable amount of civilian control over the military. The path was anything but easy. There were four military coups (three hard and one soft), the execution of a prime minister, the repeated banning of political parties unpalatable to the military brass, and even a threat as late as 2007 that the military may stage a coup if Abdullah Gul was elected president of the republic. Democratic consolidation is not an easy task and Egyptian politicians and the general public if they are committed to achieving genuine democracy must be ready to pay the price that such an endeavor is likely to entail.
The military-dominated Egyptian power structure is replicated in many other countries in the region, with Syria and Algeria being the prime examples. One should not forget that the Syrian rulers killed 20,000 of their own citizens in Hama in 1982 to avert a challenge to the Assad regime. The Algerian military by aborting the 1992 elections let loose a reign of terror in that country from which it has not recovered until this day. The Jordanian army ethnically cleansed Palestinian camps in 1970 to prevent the fall of the Hashemite monarchy. Arab armies are very efficient at ruthlessly suppressing the democratic aspirations of their peoples. So much of their energy is devoted to the task of regime preservation that it detracts gravely from their capacity as war-fighting machines as was clearly demonstrated by the defeats inflicted by Israel on the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies in the 1967 war and on the Egyptian and Syrian armies in the 1973 war.
Democratic consolidation requires the total withdrawal of the military from the political arena. Democracy in the true sense of the term will remain a mirage as long as the military is seen as the guarantor of law and order and/or as the agent for political transition. The only transition that the military brass likes is the transition of power to itself. The democracy activists in Egypt must learn this lesson quickly otherwise the gains they have made will soon be frittered away. The tyrant may be dead but tyranny is lurking around the corner.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by Foreign Policy magazine on February 13, 2011: