The situation in Egypt is looking a bit more revolutionary today, in the sense that the country is approaching the status of ungovernable abyss. The army is the country’s best hope to avoid total meltdown and real revolution (as opposed to power shifts among elite political factions). In the short term this state of affairs must make the generals glad, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to consolidate power over and against the military (as Islamists have done in Turkey, for example) now looks impossible. The Brotherhood’s abject dependence on the army could not be more clear, meaning that the military’s ability to influence the government’s political course has grown substantially in just a few weeks.
Cynics, paranoids and conspiracy theorists—which is to say the Egyptian political and intellectual classes—may even be wondering if the military has allowed or even provoked the present violence precisely to check the Brotherhood’s power.
But the truly haunting question is: what if the military can’t restore order? What if the discontent and rage of Egypt’s unemployed and its marginalized, its youth without hope, are simply too great to contain?
That is what happened in France between the elite liberal revolution of 1789 and the Terror of 1792. Successive waves of elite reformers failed to find solutions for the problems of the country and were cast aside until the Jacobins were able to provide an authority, however harsh.
There is almost nothing the outside world can do to influence the course of events in Egypt right now. In Iraq and Syria we’ve seen how the removal of the carapace of a dictatorship can leave a society that doesn’t know who it is, what it wants or how it can be governed. Egypt is a much more inherently settled and conservative country than either Iraq or Syria, or Libya for that matter, but a genuine revolution in Egypt would be a game changer. A much more radical and dictatorial form of Islamism could take power; the generals could manage to reimpose some kind of order (perhaps military rule under a Brotherhood mask); or a prolonged period of instability could descend, with lots of local violence, economic chaos and a boiling cauldron of factions, until some group or individual masters the chaos and imposes a new kind of dictatorship. Given that the Saudis and other Gulf countries, as well as the West, have important interests in Egypt, we can expect that many Egyptian factions will get money from outside patrons. And if past experience is any guide, the rivalries among outside powers, projected into Egyptian politics, will make a bad situation worse.
A very long history of settled government and the habits of dependence on the state, dating back to Pharaonic times, make Egypt harder to unsettle than its violent neighbors. So muddling through remains an option. But there’s no doubt that the failure of the Brotherhood’s first effort to stabilize a post-Mubarak regime without visible dependence on the armed forces has created a new and dangerous political situation.