By Joel Brinkley

Once again, Egyptians are showing the way for their brethren in the Arab world.

More than two months after President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office, they are demonstrating that you can stage a successful revolution, watched and admired by most everyone in the world, but that does not change who you are.

On their way to democracy, in which everyone is supposed to have equal rights, tens of thousands of people in southern Egypt have been angrily rioting because the man appointed as the region's new governor is a Coptic Christian. The rioters blocked roads and railways, occupied government buildings and threatened to kill the new appointee.

Ten percent of Egyptians are Christian, and relations between Christians and Muslims have long been tense. But now they are exploding. In another town not far away, residents have been rioting for the removal of a speed bump in the road just outside a prominent Christian lawyer's house. Two people died.

We saw this in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell. Take the lid off, and you find the water is already boiling. But Egypt is a different country, mostly homogenous. Still, like every nation, Egypt has its own divisions, prejudices and long-held bad habits, and they are flowering now. Some of them may prevent the nation from making the transition to democracy that is the ardent aspiration of so many Egyptians.

This month, thousands of Egyptians demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and a consulate in Alexandria, accusing Israel of "Jewish genocide." They called for a third Palestinian intifada and drove the ambassador out; he left last week. Many Egyptians have long despised Israel, but I doubt Mubarak would have allowed this.

And then there are those bad habits. The Egyptian army is now in charge, the same force that protesters lauded when their tanks first pulled into Tahrir Square. "The people and the army are of one hand," the demonstrators would say back then. No more. Earlier this month, an Egyptian military tribunal convicted a blogger of "insulting the army." He got three years in prison. So much for a free press.

But then, the army's leaders are displaying full-blown schizophrenia. They seem deathly afraid of more demonstrations. In recent days, the military ordered the arrest of Mubarak and his two sons. The interim government, under the army's control, arrested the former prime minister and minister of finance, among others. It abolished Mubarak's political party and the state security agency. All of this was in direct response to demonstrators' demands. "It seems, at least, that the military leadership needs pressure," remarked Mohamed ElBaradei, a presidential candidate.

But like every other Egyptian institution, left to their own devices the military's leaders drift back into self-interested authoritarianism. In a recent TV interview, quoted in the Economist, a member of the Supreme Military Council "enthused that in the new Egypt, freedom of expression is guaranteed 'so long as it is respectful and doesn't question the armed forces.'"

The interim government is no different. It is allowing new commercial television stations to go on the air. At the same time, the cabinet issued a decree criminalizing demonstrations -- like the ones that installed them in office.

Where will this take us? A nearly inviolable rule governs this arena: Democracy cannot easily be implanted in any nation unless its people and its leaders all ask for it. Otherwise the nation's oligarchy will fight to restore the old order of things, to protect their positions and perquisites.

Well, in Egypt the army has the largest position to protect; it's deeply entwined with Egypt's economy. The Army runs for-profit hospitals, motor-vehicle manufacturing plants and a host of other businesses that bring wealth to military commanders.

But now that tourism has tanked, Egypt's economy is failing. Desperate, the tourism minister pleaded with tourists to come back. "Egypt is safe, and extremists represent a minuscule proportion of" the population, he averred.

Still, a few days ago, Moody's Investor Services downgraded its assessment of Egypt's banking system from "stable" to "negative." The interim government is asking international agencies for $6.2 billion in loans.

The military may be the nation's largest business establishment. Could that have anything to do with its schizophrenic behavior -- responding quickly to demonstrations that scare tourists away, while working hard to maintain the status quo that makes its leaders wealthy?

Among all of the nation's habitual bad practices, the army's behavior is the one that must be brought under control -- if Egypt is ever to obtain true democracy.


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times


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