As Egypt lurches into a new era, a look at its complexities and subtleties helps to understand the country's likely course. Some thoughts on key issues:
The spirit of Tahrir Square is real and alive but exceedingly remote from the halls of power. Revolutionary ideas – that government should serve the people, not the reverse; that rulers should be chosen by the people; and that individuals have inherent dignity and rights – have finally penetrated a substantial portion of the country, and especially the young. In the long term, these ideas can work wonders. But for now, they are dissident ideas, firmly excluded from any operational role.
A military court sentenced liberal blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in jail.
The military is not secular. From the furthest origins of the Free Officers in the 1930s to the recent re-affirmation of Shari'a (Islamic law) as "the principal source of legislation," the Egyptian military leadership consistently has displayed an Islamist orientation. More specifically, the Free Officers emerged out of the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and through the decades has been in competition with the civilian wing. As analyst Cynthia Farahat writes in the Middle East Quarterly, their rivalry "should be understood not as a struggle between an autocratic, secular dictatorship and a would-be Islamist one but a struggle between two ideologically similar, if not identical, rival groups, hailing from the same source."
The Muslim Brotherhood is less formidable than its reputation suggests.
Finally, understanding Egyptian politics means penetrating the characteristically Middle Eastern double game (as in Iraqi and Syrian politics), one played out here by the military and the Islamists. Note its contrary elements:
Routine military-Islamist cooperation. The military has, Farahat notes, "subtly colluded with Islamists against their more democratically inclined compatriots and religious minorities, notably the Copts." One of many examples: On April 14, a human rights conference critiquing the military for hauling civilians before military tribunals was twice interrupted. First by a military police officer worried about "indecent women" and second by Islamists angry about inappropriate discussion of the military. Who is who? Roles have became nearly interchangeable. Likewise, the new military leadership permitted Islamists to form political parties and released brotherhood members from jail. Conversely, Mohamed Badei, the brotherhood leader, praised the armed forces and his organization endorsed the army's March referendum.
Egypt's lower chamber, the People's Assembly, a tool for combating the Muslim Brotherhood.
The government exploits fears of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military benefits from worries, both domestic and foreign, of an Islamist takeover. That prospect justifies not only its own continued domination of Egypt but also excuses its excesses and cruelties. The military has learned to play Islamists like a yo-yo. For example, Mubarak cunningly allowed 88 Muslim Brothers into parliament in 2005; this simultaneously showed the perils of democracy and made his own tyranny indispensable. Having established this point, he allowed just one Muslim Brother into parliament in the 2010 elections.
In brief, while the modernity of Tahrir Square and the barbarism of the Muslim Brotherhood both have long-term importance, in all likelihood, the military will continue to rule Egypt, making only cosmetic changes.
Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
Apr. 26, 2011 update: Hats off to Yigal Carmon and two colleagues, who predicted on Feb. 7, or 4 days before Mubarak resigned, that his resigning the presidency would not change much:
one constant will remain: the hegemony of the military elite. Those who might be called the true sons of Mubarak – Omar Suleiman, Ahmad Shafiq, Sami Anan, Hussein Tantawi, and many other generals representing the military establishment – will remain in power and will retain their grip over Egypt and its resources. The failure of the revolution is bound to lead to violent outbursts on the part of the frustrated protestors, but the military establishment will find the means to deal with all its civilian rivals – by democratic, or less-than-democratic, means. Until the next uprising.
May 20, 2011 update: I update the prediction made here about "only cosmetic changes" in a weblog entry, "Tantawi – The New Mubarak?"