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Feb 11, 2011 | 19:14 GMT

Mubarak's Resignation in Context

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

After two weeks of popular protests, Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as Egyptian president, handing responsibility for the country's governance to a military council.

What This Is

This is a military succession. Mubarak is a former air marshal. All of the leaders of Egypt since it achieved independence in the first half of the 20th century have been military leaders. The military holds all relevant levers of control in the country. At present, the only thing that has changed is that the specific personality at the top of the organizational pyramid has left, along with his family.

Even at their peak, the protesters outnumbered neither the military nor the internal security services, which have roughly 1 million members between them. Compare this to the 1979 Iranian Revolution or the 1989 Central European revolutions when millions of people — in countries with far smaller populations than Egypt's 80 million — turned out to protest. The military had the option of cracking down on the demonstrations, but did not see the benefits of such an option outweighing the costs. In fact, the demonstrations in many ways helped the military apply pressure on Mubarak to force his departure. In showing restraint, the military both co-opted the protesters and demonstrated to the vast majority of Egyptians that the military could be trusted with the country. There were two audiences — those on the streets where the cameras were focused, and the millions of Egyptians who, regardless of how they felt about Mubarak, did not feel compelled to join demonstrations that were disrupting everyday affairs. And the combination of the relatively small size of the protests and the military's end-goal meant that the situation never rose to the point that the military feared losing control over the environment. As such, this transfer of power is a relatively orderly, internally managed process. The military is now playing a more overt role in managing the state, but the underlying power structure remains intact.

What This Is Not

Unlike previous days when protesters concentrated on Tahrir Square, on Feb. 11 they were more dispersed, with the 6th of October Bridge, state television headquarters and the presidential palace also seeing considerable activity. However, despite the broader geography of protests, it appears the total number of protesters did not appreciably increase: perhaps only from 200,000 previously to 250,000 today (out of a metropolitan population of about 17 million). While it is significant that large protests are occurring at all in an Arab state where anti-regime protests are normally quickly quelled, the demonstrations simply did not reach critical mass to overwhelm the regime.

Now the protesters on the streets — not to mention the international media — obviously see this differently. They see this as very similar to those other "revolutions" and are going to be on quite a bit of a high. So far their numbers have not proved sufficient to force the military to do anything in particular — as opposed to being just large enough to be used by the military to press Mubarak — but nothing tends to put people into the streets like a sense of momentum.

The protesters, while their numbers have not grown, do have a vote in how this goes. They obviously agitated for a more pluralist system, but the military is not going to be in a rush to meet these demands. If the protesters disperse, then the military will be free to rule as it sees fit. If not, then it will be a contest between their ability to mobilize and the military's ability to constrain them. The balance of forces — for now — is clearly in the military's favor, but managing revolutions as the military has thus far done is hardly an exact science.

What Is Next

And so we watch the military even more closely than we watch the protest. There were a number of points since the protests began when it was not clear to STRATFOR if everyone within the military leadership was on the same page. Information at this point indicates that martial law may be imposed and military law — assuming there is a difference — is a possibility to be imposed, a logical step regardless if the military is unified (and wants to definitively end any disruption to the transition process) or if they are not (and they need some time to sort through the details).

There undoubtedly will be much talk about this or that constitutional provision and whether what the military is doing is or is not technically legal. But remember that the Egyptian president acting under "civilian" rule had the ability to amend the Egyptian Constitution at will and send those amendments to the parliament for ratification. The powers of both the president and the parliament are now formally in military hands. Now that the military has "given" the protesters what they asked for — for the military to remove the president, the very definition of a military coup in most times and places — it is hard to imagine that the military will be taking a less liberal view of their powers than Mubarak allowed himself. We assume that for the next few weeks military rule will be based on the 1952 model when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the government, with the ruling council composed of mostly if not entirely military officers.

If this follows the patterns of similar evolutions elsewhere, direct military rule means the parliament will be dissolved, in name if not in fact, and the military will, at least nominally, preside over a transitional system until civilian rule can be reintroduced. But Mubarak's government was never civilian in the first place. There certainly may be some rearrangements of titles and offices, but at its core this is cosmetic. The military was in charge before military rule was declared. The military is obviously in charge now that military rule has been declared. And so it is up to the military to determine what happens when military rule "ends."

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