Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back. Except its name was not “Louis,” but “Napoleon.”
In the Russian Revolution of 1917, a halfway nice man by the name of Alexander Kerensky pushed out the Tsar, only to be replaced by Lenin and Stalin. And then, some soothsaying from Berlin in 1918: Who would have thought that the first German republic would be done in by communists and Nazis? Shift forward to Cairo in 1952. A genuine people’s revolt drives King Farouk into exile. Yet democracy takes a fall, too—toppled by Egypt’s officers’ caste. Egypt has been a military dictatorship in civilian garb ever since.
Let’s move to Tehran in 1979. The Shah flees for his life, semi-liberal Mehdi Bazargan officiates for a few month, and then, the iron fist of Khomeinism closes around the country. It is still there 32 years later, prevailing in a long civil war and shrugging off the democratic revolt of 2009.
Radicalization, then, is revolution’s fate. The one big exception being Eastern Europe’s “Velvet Revolution.” Yet the template doesn’t quite fit Egypt today: The regimes in Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin lived on borrowed power, courtesy of the Soviet army. Once the loans were called in by Mikhail Gorbachev, these satrapies simply evaporated. Hence, there was no violence, and yesterday’s freedom fighters didn’t turn their guns on the next day’s “counter-revolutionaries.” The East Europeans were lucky, as the Egyptians may not be, even as President Obama threatens President Mubarak with the cut-off of $ 1.5 billion in U.S. alimony. The revolution is velvety no more. Some hundred dead have been reported. There is looting and shooting. So Mubarak, the tottering tyrant, is allowed to pose as the guardian of law and order. “Egypt challenges anarchy,” trumpets a government gazette.
Mubarak’s next line of defense, however, is less successful. Appointing Omar Suleiman as vice president, in an attempt to appease the masses, means that Mubarak’s offspring, Gamal, not exactly a beloved figure, can scratch the dream of a “dynastic dictatorship” in the way of Syria’s Assad père and fils. Yet, as revolutionary history shows, appeasement like Mubarak’s late offer of political concessions only emboldens the opposition. What’s more, Barack Obama’s pressure for reforms and free elections isn’t helping the Egyptian president. Mubarak must surely ponder what happened to the Shah of Iran once he was dropped by Jimmy Carter back in 1978, when the White House dispatched the same “mend your ways” message to Tehran. That was the beginning of the end of the Pahlavi dynasty.
This doesn’t mean that Mubarak’s fate is sealed. Iran had an organized opposition with a sturdy base in the mosques as well as in the rural areas, and a charismatic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Egypt has the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems to defer to the secular forces, and these have only Mohamed ElBaradei, who has made his name as U.N. bureaucrat—no Abraham Lincoln he.
The most critical difference, however, is in the power structure. The Shah regime was as cancerous as the despot himself; there was the Peacock Throne surrounded by sycophants and nothing else. The army, though munificently equipped, was a shiny shell. I remember walking the streets of Tehran just before the Shah escaped. The people simply ignored the latest-model Centurion tanks posted at key intersections. Or they handed flowers to the bewildered conscripts. Even if the Shah had given the order, the machine guns would have remained silent.
Not so in Egypt. Amid all of the country’s familiar dysfunctionalities, one institution stands out: an army of 450,000. It is coddled, elitist, and respected. It controls vast swathes of the country’s economy, even the lucrative tourism business. Hence, it has a vast stake in the status quo—but not necessarily in the survival of Mubarak’s regime. If the 82-year-old president has to go, so be it.
The army is hanging back, even as it stages a show of force in Cairo. It may not shoot, letting the despised police do the dirty work. But it won’t retreat into the barracks, either. It may shore up the president as long as it can be done economically—that is, with minimal damage to its reputation. The game, one must assume, is to save not the octogenarian, but the state, be it as bulwark against anarchy or as arbiter of the new dispensation.
Will its name be “democracy”? Only fools will tread where so many revolutions have ended in shattered dreams. So let’s consult the past, which we do know. Since the ouster of King Farouk, army and state have been one. Since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by a succession of officers-turned-pharaohs who never forgot where they came from: Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak. They were the army, and the army was them. In other words, don’t count out the colonels.
There is only one problem, as a Spanish proverb has it: You can support yourself on a bayonet, but you can’t sit on it. At least, not for very long.
Josef Joffe is the editor of Die Zeit, a senior fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, and an Abramowitz Fellow at the Hoover Institution.