First Mubarak and now his military say they offer a choice between their own stern rule or chaos, but it looks increasingly as if they are the source of the chaos.
"The events of the last few days require us all as a people and as a leadership to choose between chaos and stability," Hosni Mubarak told his country in a televised January 29, 2011, speech, one of several he made laying out to the same proposition he'd been using for years to justify staying in power: it's me or chaos. Mubarak's conceit was that was Egyptian chaos would come from the bottom up: lawless youth, a power-hungry Muslim Brotherhood barely distinct from al-Qaeda, and a fractured Egyptian society that needed his strong hand to keep together.
A year and a half later, Mubarak's chaos has come true, but by neither the causes nor the perpetrators he'd claimed. The Supreme Constitutional Court, which is closely aligned with the military, has dissolved the newly elected parliament; the court also ruled that Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's prime minister (and a major figure in the same crackdown that landed Mubarak in jail), can compete in the presidential vote, which is now entering a run-off between Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate; and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been running the country since pushing out Mubarak, announced it will hold an "emergency meeting" to decide the country's next steps. Some Arabic news sources say that the military now plans to appoint its own, non-democratic body to write the new constitution.
Just as Mubarak warned us, Egypt is in chaos, as it has been so many times since January 2011. But it's chaos despite the Egyptian people, who have given democracy an earnest go, not because of them. It turns out that the agents-of-chaos that Mubarak warned us about are actually the remnants of his own regime. Former Prime Minister Shafiq, who brazenly refused to attend today's trial for his role in a February 2011 crackdown that killed 11 civilians, instead held a press conference praising the court decision as "historic" and declaring that the "electoral process" would be "protected" by the military. It sounded like a victory speech.
Is it a coup? A number of the more liberal-minded Egyptians who dominate its social media seem to think so. Members of Muslim Brotherhood, who just saw their power-hold on Parliament dissolve and have to wonder if their candidate will get a fair race against Shafiq, are unlikely to be happy. "It's fair to say that the experiment in military-led transition has come to its disappointing end," Marc Lynch fumed on his Foreign Policy blog. But calling it a coup might be giving the military and its pawns a little too much credit.
Whatever the motivation behind the dissolution of Parliament, like so many of Egypt's painful post-Mubarak moments, it looks less like a master-mind conspiracy and more like the kind of panicky, by-the-seat-of-their-pants stumbling that has long characterized the still-creaking Mubarak machine. Maybe you call that a coup, maybe a power-grab, or maybe these top Egyptian institutions just happened to stumble in the same generally backward direction at the same time. Either way, it's hard to see these moves bringing any more stability or order than the regime's past crackdowns, which through either military or bureaucratic force have turned protesters against the once-beloved military and muddled the transition into something that is neither fully democratic nor stably controlled. They've mismanaged their way into one lose-lose after another, and it didn't start with the revolution.
Back in 1999, The Atlantic reviewed a new book about Mubarak's regime, which it portrayed as "out of touch with Egyptian reality, and bunglingly incompetent in their oppressive and defensive attempts" to hold on to power.
Just as Mubarak's allies have held on to power, so remain the weaknesses of his regime. This December, Thanassis Cambanis described Egypt's gradual realization, after enduring one pointless military crackdown or counterproductive power-play after another, "that the SCAF is simply incompetent, and that each sordid episode of protest, massacre, political agreement, and betrayal is an act in a bumbling melodrama starring a cast of senescent, befuddled generals, most of whom lived their glory days in military study abroad programs in Brezhnev's Moscow."
And they appear to still be bumbling, veering wildly and unpredictably between ruthless oppression, cool-headed efforts to work with rather than against the new institutions, and an existential fear that they might lose the place at the heart of Egyptian society and leadership they've held since Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 revolution. "The SCAF's power grab in the final days looks more like panic than the execution of a carefully prepared master scheme. It likely reflected a combination of fear of rising Islamist power, self-preservation, and growing confidence in its ability to control street protests," Lynch wrote this morning.
Ahmed Shafiq, in his victorious-sounding press conference today, repeatedly promised to return "security" -- an echo of Mubarak's own promises last year, and another message from the regime that it's a choice between them or chaos. But it looks increasingly as if they are the chaos. American University's Diane Singerman wrote in January 2011, in an incredulous response to Mubarak's speech, that Egypt's instability comes from the regime, its corruption and "centralization" of power, and its systemic "hallowing out" of civil society.
There's a term Egyptians sometimes use to describe one of the country's most visible and infuriating forms of chaos: zahmat, the soul-crushing traffic of Cairo. They curse the traffic, honk their horns, try to get around it, but they live with it, because one driver alone can't fix the poorly managed roads in one of the world's densest cities, much as one citizen or group alone can't fix Egypt's bumbling and often incompetent-seeming regime. Nobody really knows what will happen next -- the military might back down, as it has before after over-stepping and sparking protests, or it might not -- but Egyptians will likely continue navigating the frustration and despair of this country's chaotic political transition, like determined Cairene drivers trying to make it through the daily zahmat. And the creaking shell of Mubarak's old government, rather than fixing the roads, will blame the drivers.