The actions of the Egyptian Army yesterday, first in clearing Cairo's Tahrir square of demonstrators, then in dissolving the constitution and parliament, throw into relief the degree to which the military control the destiny of Egypt.
Both actions are justifiable. If the country is to recover some sense of normality, not least economically, the centre of the capital cannot remain permanently blocked by crowds of protesters. As for the constitution and the parliament – the latter the product of rigged elections in 2010 – no one is likely to feel much nostalgia for either, except a few die-hard supporters of the ex-president, Hosni Mubarak.
Nevertheless, hawk-like caution about the military's ultimate intentions must remain the priority as Egypt takes its first, faltering steps towards a new democratic era.
Six months is quite a long time for Egypt to have to wait for its first free and fair elections. Again, the army has reasonable grounds for insisting on the wait. As the Muslim Brotherhood was by far the best-organised opposition movement to the Mubarak regime, the army may have calculated that an early election would mainly benefit the Brotherhood's hard-line Islamists and disadvantage more liberal, secular groups that have barely had a moment to marshal their forces. The more pessimistic view is that the head of the army, Field Marshal Tantawi, is simply stalling in order to give remnants of the old guard, of which he was a key member, time to reassert themselves and perpetuate the Mubarak regime, albeit with a new face.
A US diplomatic report on the Field Marshal, published by WikiLeaks, which describes him as "aged and change-resistant", hardly suggests that the army chief seeks to play the role of midwife to the birth of a new Egypt. He is not Egypt's answer to General de Gaulle who, with his "certain idea of France", swept away the decrepit and despised French Fourth Republic and ushered in a new and more hopeful era. All that Egypt can realistically expect of Tantawi is that he has read the writing on the wall and has the intelligence not to try to restore the status quo.
If the developing world contains plenty of examples of armies who have stepped in to "save the nation", only then to entrench themselves in power indefinitely – Burma and Algeria being two cases in point – there are more hopeful precedents from which Egypt can draw inspiration.
Not many years ago, the received wisdom about Turkey suggested that the Turkish military would always be the kingmakers in Ankara because the country's democratic traditions were too weak to throw up responsible civilian politicians. Time has disproved that assertion as democracy has taken root, allowing elected politicians to progressively exclude the once-mighty generals from politics. Turkey's transition from military rule to civilian democracy has been slow and painful, however – and ought to serve as a reminder that, even in the best-case scenario, Egypt is not likely to become a stable democracy overnight.
What is vital over the next six months is that the military do not forfeit the confidence that they still enjoy among the pro-democracy demonstrators, and do not cave in to an instinct to restore "stability", narrowly defined. Having cleared Cairo's main square, the army would be well advised to let protests continue elsewhere.
Above all, they must make it clear that they intend to stick to the six-month timetable for elections and not resort to the Mubarak regime's constitutional tricks and devices in order to disable certain parties and promote their own favourites. Plenty of people, starting with the other autocratic rulers of the Arab world, would love Egypt's revolution to fail. It is up to the Egyptian army to disappoint them.Reuse content