After the events in Egypt this past week, some in Washington are debating whether to call a coup a coup. The better question: Was the upheaval that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 really a revolution? Think of what Egypt was before and after the fall of Mubarak, and what it is now. Before the Arab Spring the military was Egypt’s most critical political body, a stabilizing force in a country of weak politicians and weaker governance. That never changed. In fact, it hasn’t changed much in the past 60 years. The same military has deposed Mohamed Mursi, and whether it did so because the people demanded it or because the military wanted it is beside the point. Mursi is gone, the Constitution offers no effective oversight of the military, and the fate of the country still rests with a few select generals.
As we ponder Egypt’s foreseeable future, there are no attractive options. Egypt’s least worst option? Pakistan — if it should be so lucky. Things in Egypt are now so bad that resembling Pakistan is as good as it can realistically get any time soon. The worst possibility: outright state failure.
The outcome is in the military’s hands. Egypt’s situation already bears similarities to Pakistan’s, where the military is central, broadly popular, and the country’s primary economic force. In both countries, the military understands that actually running the country — or at least being seen as running the country — is the worst way to consolidate power while avoiding public fury when things go wrong.
Today, the main difference with Pakistan’s military is that Egypt’s is now seen as responsible for the day-to-day functioning of governance. The generals will once again go for the Goldilocks approach to forming a civilian government, one that is not too strong but not too weak. It has to be resolute enough to earn a reputation for competence (this is where Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood fell short), but docile enough to not sideline the military or curb its privileges. Most importantly, the new government needs to seem sufficiently independent to take flak and “own” the blame for any economic woes. The last thing the military wants is for the next wave of protestors to aim their anger at the army.
Can the military pull this off? Can it empower a government that earns enough public confidence to restore stability to the country and allows the military to distance itself from economic management and domestic politics? There are plenty of looming obstacles. The military’s killing of more than 50 pro-Mursi protestors underscores the growing rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and armed forces. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the military, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood is evolving into an insurgency, chooses to again make the party illegal, as it was under Mubarak.