Fouad Ajami: Egypt and the Fruits of the Pharaohs

Roundup: Historians' Take

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chair of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Egyptian history plays tricks with its interpreters. This ancient society is known for the stability given it by the Nile, a well-mannered and orderly river, and by a pharaonic culture where the rulers were deities. But this timeless image is largely false. Egypt's peasant society has been prone to violent upheavals. Order has often hung by a thread, as a proud people alternate between submission and rebellion.

We are now in the midst of one of these alternations. On Feb. 11, Egypt's last pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, bent to the will of his people and relinquished power. What we are witnessing in Egypt today is not the consequence of democracy but rather a half-century of authoritarianism. The chaos and the lawlessness issue out of the lawlessness of the former regime. As crony capitalism had its way with the economy, the military elite, the officer corps, had to be given its share of the loot. Having turned away from war and military adventures abroad, they were rewarded with economic enterprises and privileges of their own—exclusive clubs, vacation homes, land grants, you name it.

That bargain came to an end in the closing days of January as the Egyptian people flooded Tahrir Square and called for Mubarak to step down. One of the officers who make up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Gen. Mukhtar Molla, later said that it was an epiphany that inspired the officers not to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square. "The army and the people are one hand" was the chant of those magical 18 days that upended Mubarak. It was a rebellion of a thousand discontents, a revolution of Facebook and Google types and Islamists alike.

Issam Sharaf, a decent technocrat who had cast his fate with the protesters, was made prime minister. But the generals behind the curtain had no intention of ceding power. In the months that followed, the country grew practically ungovernable...

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