12 Feb 2011

What next for Egypt's military rulers?

What has really happened in EGypt? The army has handed over to itself – defacto military rule now a real one, so what is the difference asks Lindsey Hilsum?

A spokesman for Egypt's higher military council salutes while reading a statement in this still image taken from videoIt’s hard to think soberly when the euphoric chants of the revolution are still echoing in your ears.

After the programme last night, the team and I went into Tahrir Square to savour the moment. Among my favourite images: a baby sat proudly on the edge of a tank by his parents; a man stood dead centre of a carefully topiarised tree with sprigs in his conical hat; a soldier dancing with the crowd while his fellow conscript clapped.

Everyone with the colours of the Egyptian flag painted on their cheeks and foreheads.  And the extraordinary sense of goodwill and achievement, the cries of “Welcome, welcome Egypt” and “We are Egypt!” as a group of foreigners walked by.

And yet. What has really happened? The army has handed over to itself. The military were the power behind Mubarak – an old air force chief himself – and when the generals decided that he was unviable they pushed him out. It’s arguable that Egypt has been a de facto military dictatorship for 30 years. Now it’s a real one. So what’s the difference?

Maybe the clue to seeing the difference lies in Military Decree Number 3, broadcast on state TV last night. The spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said “there is no alternative but the legitimacy of the people” and he gave a military salute to the martyrs of the revolution, those who have been killed mainly by the police in the last 18 days of unrest. The military has told the nation they respect what the Facebook generation and all who joined them have done to liberate Egyptians. Now the old generals must work with the youth to rebuild the country.

Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Council, is 75 and in a Wikileaks cable a US diplomat described him as “Mubarak’s poodle”. He is reported to be highly resistant to change of any kind, military, political or social. The next most powerful man, Lt Gen Sami Hafez Enan, is from a younger generation of slightly more progressive officers. But still. These are the men who are running to catch up with the revolution, not the people who forged it.

Analysts say Mubarak’s mistake was his excessive caution. His obsession with stability led to instability. The New York Times today quotes a wonderful joke about Egypt’s leaders:

“Mr. Mubarak’s driver came to a fork in the road. He asked his driver which way President Nasser went and the response was, “Always left.” He asked about President Sadat and the answer was, “Always right.”

“Signal left, then right, and park,” Mr. Mubarak told his driver.

Today’s new leaders have to throw off the caution of the past and find a way forward that brings true stability, the kind which will satisfy the young people who did what their elders thought was impossible, and which their old leaders refused to countenance.