There remains, of course, much to be done. It is a cliché at moments like this to observe that only now does the hard part begin, but that, sadly, is true.
The first, perhaps the paramount, question is: what are the military’s intentions? Is it willing to allow a real transition to a genuinely democratic system? Or are the members of the newly-empowered Higher Military Council (analogous, we are told, to America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff… but the JCS are accustomed to taking orders from civilians. Their Egyptian counterparts are not) looking mainly to preserve Mubarak’s system sans Mubarak? In the coming days two things will do much to answer that question.
First, what is the role of Omar Suleiman? It was the intelligence chief-turned-vice-president who announced Mubarak’s resignation on state television Friday. But his statement was simple, lasting only a few seconds. It remains uncertain whether he, too, has been stripped of power, or whether the authority Mubarak so ineptly ceded to him on Thursday night has now been enhanced.
We still do not know exactly who is running things in Egypt, but of this you can be certain: if Suleiman proves to be a significant figure within the military’s new ruling council that is a sign that the old regime wants nothing of consequence to change. This, after all, is Mubarak’s longtime right-hand man, who as recently as last week was telling interviewers that the way to deal with the protestors was to call their grandparents so that the elder generation could order their wayward offspring home. This is the vice president who as recently as a few days ago was rejecting democracy as something Egyptians are too immature to deal with.
Second, the emergency law. Suleiman and Mubarak were both defending it as recently as yesterday. With one short hiatus just prior to Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 it has been in place since 1967. It is often said that the law ‘gives the government sweeping powers’. Let us be blunt: what it does is provide a legal veneer for the National Security State that Egypt became under Nasser and has remained ever since. It authorizes effectively unlimited detention without trial, draconian surveillance, military trials for civilians and a myriad of other police state activities. The emergency law stands second only to Mubarak himself as a symbol of the Old Ways. If the military does not do away with within the next few days that fact alone will be a powerful indicator that the change Egyptians seek is not likely to come.
What will be a good sign? Judges. Egypt’s judiciary has long been one of the few bits of the state apparatus that has occasionally shown some independence from the Mubarak regime. The country’s judges, as a class, command significant public support. To the extent that the military puts them at the forefront of the coming transition, that will be a very good omen.
“Historic” is a word we journalists are wont to overuse. Today, however, was that rare day when the events were so jaw-dropping that it seemed inadequate in every way. The real work of building a democracy in the Arab World’s most essential nation begins now, but it begins on a high note, thanks to an uprising whose success few could have imagined a mere three weeks ago.