The resignation of Hosni Mubarak is a signal moment in the history of modern Egypt and the broader Middle East. It is a moment for Egyptians to savour and a moment for the world to celebrate the courage and tenacity of Egyptians across all sectors, religions, and classes. Egypt is now beginning a historic transition to a future than will be far better than its past.
It is important to note that not only the citizens, but also the army of Egypt has played a historic role. Since the uprising began, the Egyptian military has consistently refused to use force against the people of Egypt. It embedded itself between protesters and the hated and feared mukhabarat (secret police) and fraternized with the citizenry. And when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces began an unprecedented series of meetings, it ultimately mounted a "soft" coup to force the president out of office. Although the determination of those in the streets was absolutely essential, it was the army that negotiated and managed Mr. Mubarak's exit. In this sense, there was a partnership between the people and the army. Regardless of the values and commitments of the senior leadership of the army, they stayed their hand and did their job. The military comes out of this crisis with its standing as one of Egypt's pre-eminent institutions enhanced.
The urgent question is who manages the transition? Omar Suleiman, the Vice-President nominated by Mr. Mubarak, made clear in his brief statement of Mr. Mubarak's resignation that the president had handed power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. What it does with the power it now has officially will be determining. It can, as it appears to be doing for the moment, support Mr. Suleiman as the steward of the transition to presidential elections in September. If it does so, change will be constrained and suspect to the population.
Alternatively, the military can finish the soft coup that it started and nudge the Vice-President out of office. Who then leads the transition? Does the army choose from within the military or from without? What kind of relationship does the military build, in the first instance, with the opposition who have organized the streets?
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has to make these critical decisions quickly. Once the celebration has died down in Cairo, I doubt very much that the leaders of the opposition will accept Mr. Suleiman as a transitional leader; his departed president, by delaying his departure so long, has poisoned the well for Mr. Suleiman. The army has no more loyalty to Mr. Suleiman than it had to Mr. Mubarak. Above all, military leaders are loyal to their own institution and to the preservation of its privileged role in Egyptian society. Time is running short.
Janice Gross Stein is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.