After Mubarak, Egypt's Revolution Is Far From Over

The country's autocratic regime is far too entrenched simply to be gone within a week -- or maybe even a generation


Updated 1/11, 11:09 a.m. EST

After two and half weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has resigned the presidency he'd held since 1981. According to a brief announcement from Vice President Omar Suleiman, the high council of Egypt's powerful military will take over the leadership of the country. Though the military issued a statement pledging Constitutional reforms, an end to the decades-long state of emergency, and a transfer to a free democracy, it's not clear how that will happen or when. Whatever happens next, Egypt appears to now be entering a new era. But it is not the first country to set out on the long and difficult path from autocracy to democracy.

On August 19, 1991, when recently elected Soviet Presidium Boris Yeltsin climbed one of the tanks occupying Red Square to diffuse an attempted coup by nationalist hardliners, as well as the pro-democracy protesters flooding the streets, it looked to many like the end of the much-despised Soviet regime. Twenty years later, the Russian democracy remains dominated by Soviet officials and all their bad habits, from low-level bureaucracies all the way to the office of the Prime Minister, which is held by a former officer with the KGB. Civil rights in Russia are scarce, with dissidents regularly arrested and journalists turning up dead. Transparency International ranks Russia as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, below Iran, Haiti, and Yemen.

With Mubarak's departure, the Soviet Union's dissolution provides an important lesson. Even with Mubarak gone, Mubarak's Egypt -- composed of countless bureaucracies, institutions, and officials -- is likely to remain for a generation or more. This one man's departure is an historic moment for Egypt and for the Middle Eastern struggle for democracy. But the arbitrary, corrupt, and violent regime that Mubarak has spent 29 years constructing will not disappear with him.

Mubarak's government was never as pervasive or corrupt as that of the Soviet Union, but his bureaucracies are likely too large and entrenched to dissolve overnight. Someone has to run Egypt. Someone also has to police it, which means that the vast and brutal internal security complex, responsible for everything from directing traffic to torturing dissidents, is probably sticking around. The "citizen checkpoints" regular Egyptians established to fill the police vacuum are not a long-term alternative to governance.

Whoever succeeds Mubarak, be it a military regime or a legitimately elected Parliament, will face the difficult task of rolling back Mubarak's autocratic legacy from the Egyptian government. Recent history provides two contrasting examples of how a revolutionary government can approach the problem of weeding out the old guard. On one end of the spectrum of options is post-Soviet Russia, where Yeltsin allowed much of the Soviet bureaucracy to remain in place. Russia, he reasoned, needed its technocrats and established institutions to keep running, and keeping Soviets on the payroll meant they were less likely to stage a counter-revolution. Yeltsin's years top-down reform certainly opened Russia somewhat, but many of the government's worst Soviet practices remained, as did the influence and reach of former Soviet officials. In the end, Yeltsin left office with a severe drinking problem and a successor, Putin, who would go on to restore the Soviet-era national anthem.

The failures of Russian democratization may have been on the minds of Bush administration officials in 2003 when, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they attempted to wipe Hussein's legacy from the Iraqi government entirely. Members of the Baath party were banned outright, and remain so today, which has succeeded in its aim of sealing off Iraq's government from their influence. But it's also drastically weakened nascent Iraqi institutions, where experience and expertise are scarce. With no political recourse, many Baathists took to violent opposition, further weakening Iraq's security and contributing to the years of terrorism and warfare. The U.S. also dissolved the Iraqi army, perhaps Hussein's strongest institution, which Bush administration officials feared would impede, oppose, or outright overthrow an Iraqi democratic government. The army's dissolution only created another army: thousands of angry, unemployed, and well-trained young men, many of whom joined the anti-occupation insurgency that still plagues U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians today.

No one is talking about dissolving the Egyptian army, but the Ministry of Interior, which runs internal security and has been a top grievance of the protest movement, faces an uncertain fate. In a nod to that ministry's status of one of Egypt's most loathed institutions, Mubarak this week sacked Interior Minister Habib El-Adly, banning him from international travel and promising an investigation into El-Adly's role in recent violence. Analysts see this change as largely cosmetic, but Mubarak's successor will face public pressure to purge the ministry of its thousands of security and intelligence officers. There's no telling what these brutal men would do if dismissed en masse, but it's possible some would follow the Baathist's path of violence. Many in the U.S. are understandably concerned about Egyptian extremists rising in the wake of Mubarak's departure, but it's worth bearing in mind that no one has killed more Egyptian civilians this year than the internal security forces.

Whatever happens to Mubarak's government after he leaves, it will not be identical to Russia's post-1991 backsliding or to Iraq's post-2003 turbulence. Egypt, after all, is a distinctive nation, sharing neither the Soviet depth of corruption nor the Iraqi legacy of sectarian violence. Whatever path Egypt follows, it's important to remember that governments do not transform overnight. Mubarak may be on his way out, but regimes are not confined to one man. They are vast networks, formal and informal, of partisans and technocrats, torture specialists and traffic cops, rent-seekers and public servants, all of them difficult or impossible to separate. The work of transforming Egypt to a democracy, whether by top-down reform or blanket purges, will likely be a difficult and frustrating process that could take a generation or more. Revolutions are messy, and this one is far from over.

Photo by stringer/AFP/Getty