OPINION

Regimes change to remain unchanged

The Egyptians? struggle to be free is a momentous event, the raw material of history, the moment in which nations no longer fear the state?s security apparatus, in which they can no longer be bought off with promises and subsidies. We see the power of simplicity in what they demand: the tyrant must go, democracy must come. This demand, this slogan brings together disparate forces; it feeds off the people?s need to hope for better days. The raging youth and the (so far) patient Muslim Brotherhood, men and women, academics and peasants, Muslims and Christians, all wanted the same thing: Hosni Mubarak must go. As long as the president stood firm, the rage and fear grew, the separate groups joined forces, knowing that if they did not win they could expect only catastrophe – the breakup of every group and the arrest and punishment of its members.

Today things are more difficult. The ?tyrant? is not one man, it is a regime. When the one man goes, the regime still has every reason to resist, to endure. It is huge, its tentacles reach everywhere, into every corner of the land, into every sphere of life. If it does not remain in power it has no reason to exist — its millions of members will find themselves not only without a job but also at the mercy of those whom they oppressed. Last week, as Mubarak held on to power, the conflict could be seen in stark relief, with the protestors on one side and the regime on the other. As long as a political solution was not forthcoming, there was an increased risk of a full-frontal collision, with each side knowing that its survival depended on its victory, on the total defeat of the other. As the days passed it was clear that the appeals from the United States and the European Union for a ?peaceful transition? meant nothing to the protagonists. For the regime, the only thing that mattered was for the protests to end and order be restored; for the protestors, the only way forward was victory — Mubarak?s resignation.

The army, the establishment?s pillar, became the most important player in the conflict because it did not align itself against the protestors at the start. The military?s (relatively) neutral stand allowed the protestors to believe that they had a hope of overturning the regime, and this allowed them to push for victory. At the same time, protected by the military, the regime could promise dialogue and reform, hoping that things would quiet down and that it would survive the crisis. Mubarak?s refusal to step down, however, provoked greater resolve on the side of the protestors and forced the military to take drastic measures. When the generals and other senior members of the regime realized that as long as the president remained immobile the country was in danger of spinning out of control, they dethroned him.

It may take a long time for us to learn exactly what happened in Cairo last week, but the confusion on Thursday (when army and government officials spread the word that Mubarak was about to quit, and he proved them wrong), shows how intense the backroom politics became. On Thursday night, the president declared that he had no intention of resigning — but less than 24 hours later he was forced to hand over all power to the supreme military council. It is quite likely that Mubarak tried to ignore the pressure coming from his generals. But his time was up. Egypt had to take a step back from the abyss of civil war. Those who had the credibility to do so — the military — made sure that step was taken.

The regime reaffirmed the principle that we change in order to avoid others changing us. Protestors chanted ?the regime has fallen? while the Muslim Brotherhood praised the military for ?keeping its promises.? In other words, on Friday the army was seen as a pillar of Egypt?s new dispensation and not part of the ?regime.? Very soon, though, it will be evident whether the regime that nurtured Mubarak, and which he sustained and empowered in return, will be the cornerstone of a new, democratic Egypt or the guardian of yesterday?s regime. All will depend on how the military and the anti-regime forces manage to strike a compromise that ensures a new dispensation without the collapse of the state, with democracy rather than authoritarianism.

What the military of Egypt (and every regime), must not forget is that everything that happened in Egypt in recent days springs from the bravery of those who stood unarmed and determined in the country?s streets and squares. Such power cannot be stopped.