11 February 2011
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


With the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, only the first stage of Egypt's transformation will have been achieved. What follows could merely be a reorganization of the existing system without fundamental progress towards change. The next steps from the opposition are crucial and will essentially decide the direction of the revolution.

Army Holds the Cards

In terms of holding the peace the army still holds the cards, and it is one of their own, General Omar Suleiman, who has already assumed the interim presidency in all but name. As head of the General Intelligence Service since 1993 and a strong supporter of Egypt's pro-western stance, he has warily been accepted by the US as an acceptable face of the transition. But a genuine political and economic transition is clearly what the US now wants, and as the main sponsor of Egypt's military budget, is likely to have been exerting pressure on the army high command from behind the scenes.

Now that the military has publicly stated that it supports the 'legitimate demands of the people', the risk is that the speed of change may be blocked by satisfying the demands of the obvious losers in their midst. If a civilian political establishment is really going to take the place of the army in coming months, the senior military establishment will have to forego some of their considerable financial and material benefits. The lower ranks of the army may be happy to see these privileges go, since not all - and certainly not the lower ranks - have been party to them. As a result the continuing unity of the army may also be in the balance in the coming weeks.

Protestors' Response is Critical

The response of the protestors across Egypt, above all in cities beyond Cairo itself, will be critical. Until now, what has unified them is the call for Mubarak to go. Once achieved, where their focus comes to rest next, and how the priorities of this amorphous and essentially leaderless movement will be orchestrated and directed is as yet unknown. This is where the attention of the outside world should not waver, nor should it indulge in picking winners and losers without concrete and irreversible progress being made towards the key objectives demanded by Egyptians themselves. Only guarantees that Egypt is moving in the direction of economic and political pluralism will satisfy the protestors, even if their specific demands fragment and diverge over coming weeks.

The army may well have won plaudits for its restraint until now. If a continuation of military control with an acceptable civilian face is the outcome of the current turmoil, the world will continue to see protests re-emerging, as the reality sinks in that the fundamentals of state power have not changed.

What Now for the National Democratic Party?

The National Democratic Party (NDP) will face a different set of dilemmas now the Mubaraks are off the scene. Long seen as a patronage network for the self-enrichment of individual parliamentarians, the NDP - like its now suspended equivalent in Tunisia, the RCD - will fear they will be the next to come under the spotlight of popular protests and thus, under increasing threat. As the main beneficiaries of the current constitution, they are seen as unreliable agents for undertaking the kind of swift constitutional changes needed to hold free and fair elections, as well as incapable of ensuring that the ensuing elections would be transparent.

If feeling sufficiently threatened, the NDP could well chose to use their collective financial resources to mobilise their supporters again, reaching out to striking workers and those no longer able to withstand the economic downturn of recent weeks. If so, the outcome on the streets could be significantly worse.