Published NY TIMES: There comes a moment in the life of almost every repressive regime when leaders — and the military forces that have long kept them in power — must make a choice from which there is usually no turning back: Change or start shooting. Egypt’s military, calculating that it was no longer worth defending an 82-year-old, out-of-touch pharaoh with no palatable successor and no convincing plan for Egypt’s future, ultimately sided with the protesters on the street, at least for Act 1.
In so doing, they ignored the advice of the Saudis, who, in calls to Washington, said that President Hosni Mubarak should open fire if that’s what it took, and that Americans should just stop talking about “universal rights” and back him.
As the contagion of democracy protests spread in the Arab world last week, Bahrain’s far less disciplined forces decided, in effect, that the Saudis, who are their next-door neighbors, were right. They drew two lessons from Egypt: If President Obama calls, hang up. And open fire early. It is far too early to know how either of these reactions will work out. But in both countries, as in nearly all police states, the key to change lies with the military. And as with any self-interested institution, the military’s leaders can be counted on to ask: What’s in it for us, long and short term?
Egypt’s military leadership came to the same conclusion that South Korea’s did in the 1980s and Indonesia’s did in the 1990s: The country’s top leader had suddenly changed from an asset to a liability. The military, with its business enterprises, to say nothing of its American aid and high-tech arms, required a transition that would let it retain power while allowing Washington to herald gradual, substantive reform.
In Bahrain, on the other hand, the military seems to have concluded that adapting to change would do them no good — that the protesters were far too great a threat to their very command of society. So the country that acts as host to America’s Fifth Fleet decided to ignore President Obama’s advice, which it regarded as assisted suicide.
None of this came as much of a surprise to the White House, which last summer, at President Obama’s request, began examining the vulnerability of these regimes and more recently began examining what makes a transition to democracy successful. “There are many different factors involved in the cases we have looked at: economic crises, aging authoritarians, negotiated transitions between elites,” said Michael McFaul, a top national security aide at the White House who runs what he jokingly calls the White House “Nerd Directorate.”
He spent the past few weeks churning out case studies for President Obama and the National Security Council, as it sought lessons about how to influence the confrontations that have engulfed close American allies and bitter adversaries. “There is not one story line or a single model,” said Mr. McFaul, who drew on work he did as a professor at Stanford. “There are many paths to democratic transition, and most of them are messy.”
Egypt certainly started out that way, with street battles between police and protesters, and a rampage by thugs to rout the protesters from Tahrir Square. But American officials, recalling their strained conversations with Egyptian counterparts, say they knew that Mr. Mubarak’s days were numbered eight days into the crisis, when the military made clear that — except in some extreme cases — it simply would not fire on its own people.
“You could almost hear them making the calculations in their heads,” said one senior American official who was involved in the delicate negotiations. “Did they want to stick with an aging, sick leader whose likely successor was his own son, who the military didn’t trust? And we just kept repeating the mantra, ‘Don’t break the bond you have with your own people.’ ”
Their words were persuasive, in no small part, many American officials believe, because of the revered role the military has long had in Egypt and its deep ties to the American military. A 30-year investment paid off as American generals, corporals and intelligence officers quietly called and e-mailed friends they had trained with.
But now comes the trickiest part, which is making the military hold to its promises to allow a civilian government to flourish. That will mean the military must give up its monopoly on power, and that isn’t easy for any leader of a regime, especially one deeply invested in its country’s economy — a trait Egypt’s army shares with the People’s Liberation Army in China. Already, Egypt’s generals have balked at Mr. Obama’s demand for an immediate end to emergency rule.
The question is whether Egypt’s military can manage a transition to democracy, as the militaries of South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Chile have. South Korea is perhaps the clearest example of a good outcome, for both its citizens and the United States. The country is now among the most prosperous in the world, and the government, after some very rocky years, is now Washington’s favorite ally in Asia. In the face of large street protests in the mid-1980s, the generals gradually allowed free elections. In those days, rumors of coups were rampant, and the first freely elected president was a general. But the last four have been civilians, including one Nobel-prize winning dissident.
Then there is Indonesia. General Suharto ruled for 31 years — then ran out of gas, just as Mr. Mubarak did. Washington ignored Suharto’s many human rights abuses because he was a steadfast anti-Communist. But he lasted only two and a half weeks after street riots broke out in 1998, triggered by the Asian economic crisis.
Suharto’s cold war utility had expired. Karen Brooks, a former White House expert on Indonesia, wrote last week for the Council on Foreign Relations about the similarities between Suharto and Mr. Mubarak: “Both demonized Islamist political forces and drove them underground; both kept a tight lid on the media, the opposition and all forms of dissent; both accumulated massive amounts of wealth while in power” and, of course, “both enjoyed the support of the United States.”