This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 11/02/2011
Egypt has just witnessed a popular revolution -- but also a military coup. So as we in Washington watch the crowds celebrate in Cairo, we also have to wonder: will this be a good coup, or a bad coup?
The one sentence announcement read by Vice President Omar Suleiman on Egyptian state television this morning said that President Hosni Mubarak had ceded authority to the supreme military council, which announced yesterday that it had gone into session. That means the Egyptian constitution -- which the regime has been insisting must be followed -- is no longer in effect. Under that constitution, Mubarak would have to be succeeded by the speaker of parliament, and new elections for president held within 60 days.
Clearly the military council, not the parliamentary speaker, is the country's authority at the moment. Suleiman may or may not have a role -- he is a former general and intelligence chief, but left the military when he became vice president. He did not participate in the military council's meeting on Thursday.
The most likely scenario, one Egyptian protest leaders seem to be taking for granted, is that the military council intends to accept the popular call for democracy, and will now organize a transition. It issued a statement this morning, before Mubarak's resignation, that promised democratic elections and the eventual lifting of an emergency law that is the foundation of the old autocracy. But the statement also appeared to back the positions of Mubarak and Suleiman Thursday night.
Opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei told CNN in an interview that he believes Suleiman as well as Mubarak are now out of power and that the military council will soon reach out to the opposition forces. But neither he nor Egyptian Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who also spoke to CNN, seemed to know for sure who among the generals was in charge and what their intentions were. Let's hope the "good coup" expectations are correct.
UPDATE: A statement read on state television by a uniformed representative of the military council in Cairo's early morning hours said it did not intend to substitute for popular sovereignty, and that it would later announce measures to govern a transitional phase. The statement also praised Mubarak for stepping down "in the interests of the nation" and "salutes the martyrs" who lost their lives in the unrest.
Does that make the situation clear? Not really.