Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave into the demands of the protesters today, leaving Cairo and stepping down from power. That came hours after a speech, broadcast live across the world yesterday, in which he refused to do so. Earlier that day, the Supreme Military Council released a statement -- labeled its "first" communiqué -- that stated that the military would ensure a peaceful transition of Mubarak out of office. In practice, it appears that power has passed into the hands of the armed forces. This act was the latest in the military's creep from applauded bystander to steering force in this month's protests in Egypt. Since the protest movement first took shape on January 25, the military has, with infinite patience, extended and deepened its physical control of the area around Tahrir Square (the focal point of the protests) with concrete barriers, large steel plates, and rolls of razor wire. In itself, the military's growing footprint was the next act in a slow-motion coup -- a return of the army from indirect to direct control -- the groundwork for which was laid in 1952.
The West may be worried that the crisis will bring democracy too quickly to Egypt and empower the Muslim Brotherhood. But the real concern is that the regime will only shed its corrupt civilians, leaving its military component as the only player left standing. Indeed, when General Omar Suleiman, the recently appointed vice president to whom Mubarak entrusted presidential powers last night, threatened on February 9 that the Egyptian people must choose between either the current regime or a military coup, he only increased the sense that the country was being held hostage.
The Egyptian political system under Mubarak is the direct descendant of the republic established in the wake of the 1952 military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers to power. Nasser and the officers abolished Egypt's limited parliamentary monarchy and ousted an entire generation of civilian political and judicial figures from public life. They created their own republic stocked with loyal military figures. Their one experiment with technocratic governance, allowing Egyptian legal experts to write a new basic document, was a failure. The experts' draft had provisions for a strong parliament and limited presidency, which the officers deemed too liberal. They literally threw it into the wastebasket and started over, writing a constitution that placed immense power in the hands of the president.
Such an arrangement would prove to work out well for the military, as every Egyptian president since 1953 has been an army officer. For two generations, the military was able, through the president, to funnel most of the country's resources toward national security, arming for a series of ultimately disastrous wars with Israel. These defeats, combined with the government's neglect of the economy, nearly drove the country to bankruptcy. Popular revolt erupted between 1975 and 1977 over the government's economic policies. To regain control, the military turned its attention away from war and toward development. It gradually withdrew from direct control over politics, ceding power to domestic security forces and the other powerful backer of Egypt's ruling party -- small groups of civilian businessmen who benefited from their privileged access to government sales and purchases to expand their own fortunes.