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Egypt's generals take up an unfamiliar trade Add to ...

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt has shown remarkable public-spiritedness and courage in moving into unknown territory. After all, a military coup d'état by popular demand is at best an extreme rarity, perhaps a unique event.

The ex-officio chair of the council used to be the very man its members have now forced out, Hosni Mubarak. They are not well prepared to govern. That is shown by the mixed signals they gave off before Friday's regime change, and the brief, rather opaque statements they have issued in the past few days. It is not their fault that they do not come equipped with deft communications advisers, but their awkwardness underlines the challenges they have taken on.

One promising sign is that the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court is to be involved in the new government, but then again, the jurists of the Nasserite and post-Nasserite regime can hardly be genuinely experienced in dealing with the rule of law.

The Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, said in his terse announcement that Mr. Mubarak had "waived" his presidency and assigned his functions to the military commanders. After the former president's passive-aggressive speech on Thursday, the military evidently delivered new assurances, or new threats, or both, to Mr. Mubarak. In due course, a military spokesperson saluted both Mr. Mubarak and the martyrs of the demonstration - apparently in order to be even-handed.

In the interval between Mr. Mubarak's speech and the end of his presidency, the military issued a statement saying that the notorious repressive Emergency Law, in effect for an almost uninterrupted 30 years, would be lifted when the security situation permits and "current circumstances lapse." It also said that they would not try to be a substitute for a "legitimate" government, thus implicitly acknowledging their own dubious legitimacy. The parliament will probably be suspended for some time, on the face of it a further departure from democracy, but there is undoubtedly need for some sort of transition period, perhaps six months or a year. All these forgivable ambiguities express the military council's dilemmas - they need not detract from the joyous sense of liberation, of citizens having emancipated themselves.

Mr. Mubarak gave Egypt peace, stability and economic growth, but politically he left it frozen in a left-wing militarism of the 1950s. He could have safely loosened his grip over his three decades in power, allowed voluntary associations to grow up, and let citizens gain more experience in the exercise of free speech.

Egypt is now in what the German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin called a "post-constitutional situation." It has a good chance of re-emerging as a constitutional regime, but many elements of Egyptian society, after they have rested from their triumphant Friday celebrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, will have to work hard toward liberal democracy.

 

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