Egypt’s revolution is not over.
As I write this, Hosni Mubarak’s reign as autocrat of Egypt ended mere minutes ago. The scenes on Al Jazeera English — the only international-news channel worth watching for the past month — are of a delirium in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It is a panorama of popular victory unseen since Germans clambered up the Berlin Wall, and it may be just as epochal.
Lost in the ecstasy over the dictator’s departure is the troubling reality of what, specifically, Egypt’s now-former Vice President Omar Suleiman just announced on Egyptian state television. Mubarak is gone, yes — but his powers devolve to a military junta headed by General Tantawi. The “Supreme Military Council” that now rules the country represents the same stratum of the Egyptian elite that Mubarak himself emerged from, and that sustained every Egyptian autocrat since 1952. Egyptians may have swapped one tyrant for an entire council of them.
All is confusion, of course. At this writing, wire reports state that the junta will sack Egypt’s Cabinet, dissolve its parliament, and rule directly in collaboration with the Supreme Court. The dismissal of even the attenuated and discredited organs of Egyptian democracy, such as they were, would be a grave matter. No doubt Edmund Burke looks down from heaven and rejoices at the end of a dictator — and recoils at the end of institutions.
Here is the hard truth about Egypt now: if the revolution was merely to depose Hosni Mubarak, it has won. But if it was to seize liberty, it is not over. Signs of a long and protracted “transition” period are already emerging, not just in the early actions of the junta, but in the statements of Egyptian opposition leaders themselves. Mohamed ElBaredei, one of the figureheads of the anti-Mubarak movement, just opined to Al Jazeera English that he expected a caretaker government would convene, and rule Egypt for about a year until elections could be held.
This statement discredits ElBaredei in revealing a shocking disconnection between him and the experience of ordinary Egyptians over the past several weeks. Institutions matter, certainly, and orderly transitions matter, absolutely: but the surprising lesson of this revolution — which no rational observer could have expected — is that Egyptian civil society is healthy, robust, assertive, and ready for democracy and liberty now.
The question before ElBaredei and the patrons of the Egyptian elite is not terribly different from that facing the Egyptian junta: when do Egyptians deserve liberty? If the only options offered by Egypt’s elites are “later” and/or “never,” then the revolution may well turn against them. We in the West have seen this before, in Romania after 1989, when the institutional-elite successors to the deposed dictator had to enforce their rule with the fists and truncheons of miners from the hinterland.
Yet if that happens, having drunk the victory over Hosni Mubarak, what will Egyptians fear?
I speak of worst-case scenarios throughout here. The advent of direct military rule should never be welcomed, but it does not inevitably portend the end of democratic hopes. If Egypt’s new military rulers swiftly dismantle their own ascendancy, they will go down in history as the most admirable Arab generals of any era. They must be pushed to do so. If the likes of ElBaredei will not do it, the men and women celebrating now across Egypt must do it. They have the habit of revolution for liberty now — let them not abandon it.
For their part, America and the rest of the world ought to hold the new junta to a single standard: its progress toward a rapid demise in favor of a fully democratic and liberal state. It’s not reasonable to hope for this, especially given the Obama Administration’s own dilatory rhetoric since this revolution began. (We will not speak of its policy until one exists.) Nonetheless, it is what ought to be done, and that will be generally recognized either after it successfully occurs, or after Egyptians are suppressed under a new autocracy.
So congratulations, Egypt. Tonight is yours. Tomorrow, though, belongs to the junta, and the elites who choose to collaborate with it. The days to come will show the world whether you fought and died to free yourselves of Hosni Mubarak — or to be free.