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After Mubarak: Is Egypt Risking a Military Coup?

February 16, 2011

Just after Mubarak’s resignation, a tweet was rapidly disseminated. It read, “Congratulations. Don’t let the army get entrenched. Your friend, Pakistan.”

Like most humor, the joke draws on a real tension, in this case between people’s joy at the regime being replaces at the army, and the knowledge of how close is the risk of a genuine military coup in which the old elite of officers and businessmen around Mubarak survives him to remain more or less in power, and further protests over time are repressed.

There have always been strong ties between military and political leadership in the Mubarak regime. Many senior military officers—including Egypt’s “interim” head of state Mohammed Tantawy—have served in cabinet-level posts.

The military Supreme Council is promising the protesters most of their political demands—after security, normalcy and “order” is restored.

But the Mubarak regime had promised reforms for decades—including lifting of the Emergency Laws–and never kept any of those promises. Why should the protesters trust the current authorities? Continued protests seem the only reliable way to ensure that a takeover does not occur, so while most of the political protesters returned home this week, a core group of about 2000 remains in the center of Tahrir Square.

Concerns about continued visibility are even truer for the labor movement. Their goals of wage and subsidy have not been addressed, and thousands of workers in banks, textile and food factories, oil facilities and government offices have been on strike this week. Some labor leaders were calling for continued strikes even as the military was urging them to go back to the factories to return the country to normalcy.

Army officers often build personal fortunes for defense contract kickbacks and other opportunities, then invest this money in banks, tourism and other industries that have been hard hit by the current uprising. Pushing the army to the point of imposing direct military rule under the guise of “restoring order” is a real risk.

But direct military rule is not really in the Army’s best interests, either. The army does not want to alienate the U.S., which provides $1.5 billion in military aid every year, nor does the officer class want to risk the possibility of conscripted soldiers refusing orders to use force against the civilian population.

A military coup ending in direct military rule is a real possibility, certainly more likely than the common U.S. fear of an Islamic takeover, but not the most likely scenario, and not over the long term.

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