Tonight, which has already begun in Cairo, and tomorrow will be a pivotal moment in Egypt’s history. Yesterday saw withdrawal of the police from population centers, to defensive (and very aggressively defended) positions around Interior Ministry and other regime pillars. The Army deployed with smiles and even protesters’ cheers, but did little or nothing to stop either protests or lawlessness, which some citizens tried to contain. Government agents did at least some of the looting and tire burning, in an apparent effort to give the regime an excuse to restore law and order.
That is likely what it will try to do, using as little force as possible in front of TV cameras. Al Jazeera has been closed down for the occasion. The demonstrators will need to show more nonviolent discipline than they have in recent days if they are to avoid a vicious crackdown supported by at least a large part of the population. Keeping the smiles on those soldiers’ faces is the trick that will bring down Mubarak, if he is to be brought down.
He is definitely not finished yet, despite the blogotwittersphere’s triumphant refrains, which are more wishful thinking than careful analysis. There is little sign that Mubarak has yet lost the crucial support of the police and army. His effort to forecast the election lights for his son is finished, and I have my doubts that yesterday’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president will be the final word on succession. But there are many other people who can step in to save the day for the regime’s privileged few.
The path to democracy in Egypt is particularly fraught because it will require constitutional revision, something some the bloggers are beginning to fathom. Under the current constitution, a new president would have to pass muster in the current parliament, which is overwhelmingly under the control of Mubarak and his political party. Revising the constitution will be a lengthy process requiring–if democracy is to be the result–someone at the helm who will steer convincingly in the right direction. It is hard to picture that person emerging from the current parliament, which was elected in unfree and unfair elections last fall. It is full of Mubarak cronies.
Of course there are also extra-constitutional paths out of the current situation. An army seizure of power would not be outside Egyptian tradition, and if the disorder get worse a large part of the middle class might even welcome it. Even an army coup could lead in a democratic direction. Tunisia is at least in part embarked on an army-pushed forced march that seems to be headed towards competitive elections. Egypt might follow.
The difficult question is how much of the old regime needs to be dismantled to allow a new one to emerge relatively peacefully and easily. There is no universally applicable answer to that question–the demonstrators will decide, by either continuing their efforts or giving them up when they see credible moves in the direction they want. Egyptians wouldn’t be the first to get the answer wrong–remember the French Revolution?
So far though the protesters have clearly embodied the will of the people to take control and steer their country in directions more beneficial to larger numbers than has been the case in the last several decades. Mubarak is making a mistake not to listen to their voice, but his too is a mistake made often. Even if he doesn’t step down, the days of his regime are numbered, if only by his own longevity. What comes next will likely be profoundly different from what it might have been had these demonstrations not allowed Egyptians to taste liberation. Whatever happens in the short term, the long term belongs to the people.