Pressman: “Coup with a mass(ive) twist”

Jeremy Pressman writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Since Mubarak’s departure, I have followed several discussions among academics and analysts about what just happened. Some contend it was a military coup . Many others call it a popular revolution.

I am not surprised about this disagreement because while the general pressure that was brought to bear on Mubarak came from millions of Egyptians taking to the streets, the final push came from Egypt’s generals who saw the writing on the wall, even when Mubarak himself stubbornly clung to power. (Maybe it was a coupvolution?)

But the coup vs. revolution divide is not just an academic debate. The combination of these two elements will likely greatly influence the direction Egypt takes over the next 6-12 months. As Juan Cole noted on February 13, “For the moment, Egypt is a strange kind of military dictatorship, with various safety valves for popular input and a set of promises for the future. But then, it has been that for some time– it is just that the promises may now be more credible and a transition to something else may be possible.”

Will the leaders of the armed forces still think about how to protect their military, political, and economic power? Absolutely, and I would not expect them to do otherwise.

At the same time, we know the generals witnessed the same mass movement that captivated not only the Egyptian populace but also the rest of the world. The cost of blocking genuine political reform would clearly be higher than in the aftermath of a conventional coup where the initial pressure for change came from the military itself. In this case, the January 25 movement was an impressive mass movement with extensive preparation, transnational learning, and broad public involvement.

Moreover, I fear the understandable focus on the fact that it took only 18 days to topple Mubarak – amazing, yes – obscures the years of planning, protesting, organizing, and learning by many Egyptian groups. By all appearances, this was a hard-fought and well-earned victory, not a flash in the pan.

What I am left wondering is whether the military can relinquish political power, perhaps even to the point of formal civilian rule over the armed forces, and still hold onto its economic empire. With Gamal Mubarak “badly in need of a good career counselor,” the military’s economic arms might even have a freer hand.

(A succinct take is here: “And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists,” have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.”) Because while the desire for political freedom played a central role in the uprising, economic want did as well. What happens if Egyptians see progress on one but not the other?

Jeremy Pressman
Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Connecticut

9 Responses

  1. ‘But the coup vs. revolution divide is not just an academic debate. The combination of these two elements will likely greatly influence the direction Egypt takes over the next 6-12 months. As Juan Cole noted on February 13, “For the moment, Egypt is a strange kind of military dictatorship, with various safety valves for popular input and a set of promises for the future. But then, it has been that for some time– it is just that the promises may now be more credible and a transition to something else may be possible.”’

    So what happened in Portugal in 1974? Coup or revolution? Why does this process have to be viewed as binary?

  2. I think it must be accepted that this was decidedly not a revolution but a coup. The military has been in control one way or another since 1952. Gamal was never part of the military. The military did not want him to succeed. The pressure on Mubarak was already on from the military which sees itself as the guarantor of the state – their state.

    The people on the streets – and there is no evidence that “millions” turned out, more like 300 to 500,000 – an insignificant percentage of the population – did not cause the fall of Mubarak. The military, which already wanted him out, had its excuse to impose order and get rid of him in the name of stability while significantly increasing its own power. The regime is intact because the military agreed with the demonstrators.

    Getting caught up in the hype of the various media that this was a revolution of the people not only is naive but is a set up for the handwringing later about the lack of democracy. The demonstrators never called for an overthrow of the regime. Never. Just the removal of one man and dissolution of parliament.

    How the regime will handle reforms remains to be seen. Anyone trying to read the tea leaves is on a fools errand.

  3. Elsewhere (TomGram), the main leverage point was the 300 millions dollars that was disappearing each day from the economy which brought in the business class in addition to the military and the revolutionists.

    In my opinion, the 21st century marks the end of single-event causality as a way of understanding the situation.

  4. Excellent post. Just remember that civil resistance is a (nonviolent) weapon that can be used against all power-holders, including an interim military junta. So long as the Egyptian democratic coalition retains the capacity to mobilize people for selective and widespread nonviolent disruption, particularly through strikes, it can insure its influence on the terms of transition. The same demand and drive for people’s rights that was seen in Tahrir can be seen, again and again.

  5. Thank you, Professors! This exactly what I have been blogging. You know the politics internally but it also just makes sense the way things are going. The cronies arrested, the constitutional committee appears the real thing. What interest would the military have in upsetting its plum position. How not to upset it: make a deal or ‘deal’ with the democrats.

  6. @Richard I debated using hundreds of thousands vs. millions. I used millions because in total millions participated even if not all at once or in the same way.

  7. I live and work in Abu Dhabi and have many Egyptian colleagues. Many emigrated to earn a decent living. Two very good friends worked extremely hard (2 and 3 jobs) in order to get a university education to work abroad. They never earned enough money to afford their own apartments in Egypt…lived with family.

    Here are some quotes: “the military in Egypt is very wise; they will protect the people; our military supports Egypt and Egyptians.” Just anecdotes, but relevant to the article.

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