Egypt: Revolution or Coup?
Last year, on February 11, I was standing next to the main stage in Tahrir Square when the evening call to prayer rang out.
All you could see was a sea of people in lines, using Egyptian flags as prayer mats. When news filtered through to the crowd that Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt's president, had stepped down, people started shouting, saying that nobody could celebrate until prayers had finished.
On the final prostration, as they stood up, tens of thousands of people looked up to the sky and shouted in unison “Allahu Akbar”: "God is Great". It was the single most incredible moment of my career, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
That moment wasn’t just about a change of regime, it was about the fact that Egyptians had made it happen. They took on their president and they brought him down. Egyptians, who had gained a reputation in the Arab world as political passive, had done the seemingly impossible in just 18 days.
A year later, however, people are still asking how much the resignation was a result of people power, as opposed to military might.
Mubarak’s final hours
On Februray 10, Mubarak gave a televised speech – many, including those in the United States government and members of the Egyptian military, expected that he would announce he was stepping down. A well-placed source told me at the time that the military was livid after the speech: it was not what they had agreed on with Mubarak.
Twenty-four hours later, Mubarak was on a plane to Sharm el Sheikh, handing over power not to Omar Suleiman, his vice-president, but to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
SCAF immediately issued "Communiqué Number One", making it clear that a new era in Egyptian history had begun and that they were at the helm.
In subsequent months, they have acted less like a transitional revolutionary authority and more like a military regime: failing to address the people's grievences and demands, and blaming violence and unrest on the ground on so-called "hidden hands."
Sami Anan, the Egyptian chief of military staff, was on a visit to the US when the uprising started (the lines of communication between the military and the US were kept open throughout the 18-day uprising).
During that time, the military stayed neutral, preferring not to get involved in the protests even when they turned ugly. When it started to become clear that Mubarak’s ouster was a question of 'when' not 'if', however, the military assumed the role of natural successors, particularly for the US. Under Mubarak, Egypt had, of course, been a key regional ally for the US.
This way, the US government could have its cake (by appearing to support democracy and the people’s right to choose their government) and eat it (still have a friend in charge), too.
Hassan Nafaa, a writer and professor of political science at Cairo University, says the army was not necessarily pro-revolution, but it was against the idea of Gamal Mubarak taking over from his father, a scenario which was looking increasingly likely before the uprising.
In the final moments of the uprising, they decided that Hosni Mubarak had to go. “I get the impression,” says Nafaa, “that the army forced Hosni Mubarak to leave by offering him guarantees that he would be safe and they would manage the situation.”
Implementing those guarantees, however, proved difficult, with continuous street protests demanding the former president be tried for murder.
Recently, the SCAFmade a statement saying that there is much that the military did in the final days of Mubarak's rule that had not been publicised but that would prove its commitment to the revolution. What is clear is that they played a pivotal role in ousting the president.
Nevertheless, while the military did not start the process of removing Mubarak, it certainly stepped in to occupy the power vacuum he left behind. In a sense, Egypt's revolution was more of an uprising that ended in a coup.
Ironically, history may well prove the real "hidden hand" during the revolution was the military's own.