I know practically nothing about Egypt beyond what I read in newspapers and blogs by lay people commenting on what’s in the newspapers. But the journalistic accounts of developments I’ve been reading over the last few weeks raise crucial questions that they don’t do much to answer: Is Mubarak a tyrant (or an aspiring tyrant) and is Egypt already a tyranny? It's not just a matter of semantics.“Egypt’s armed forces on Thursday announced that they had begun to take ‘necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people,’ a step that suggested the military intends to take a commanding role in administering the strife-torn nation.
“The command of Egypt’s military stepped forward Thursday in an attempt to stop a three-week-old uprising, declaring on state television it would take measures “to maintain the homeland and the achievements and the aspirations of the great people of Egypt” and meet the demands of the protesters. The development appeared to herald the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
“Several military leaders and officials in Mr. Mubarak’s government indicated that the president intended to step down on Thursday. . . .
“The character of the military’s intervention and the shape of a new Egyptian government remained uncertain. A flurry of reports on state media on Thursday indicated a degree of confusion — or competing claims — about what kind of shift was underway, raising the possibility that competing forces did not necessarily see the power transfer the same way.”
When I speak of a “tyrant” and a “tyranny,” I'm using those words in something like their classical sense. Going back at least as far as Aristotle, a “tyranny” is political rule by a person (a "tyrant") disposed to rule in his own or his family’s interest rather than according to any identifiable theory of the common good. That doesn’t mean that a tyrant doesn’t try to cultivate allies among powerful constituencies by persuading them that they can rely on him to do them political favors. But he promotes civic ideals and the well-being of his subjects only as a means of looking out for himself and his family. Tyranny is inherently personal rule. So when a tyrant is cast out of power (at least without chosing a successor for himself) there has necessarily been a change of regime.
Mubarak’s evident intention, before the present upheaval, to be succeeded by his son, is exhibit A in the case for his being a tyrant, or at least harboring tyrannical ambitions. That represents a crucial difference among him and his immediate predecessors at the head of the Egyptian state. “[I]t never occurred to either Nasser or Sadat,” Fouad Ajami reminds us, “to entertain dynastic succession for their sons.” They may have been occasionally ruthless military dictators, but they weren’t tyrants inasmuch as they’d both seized power at the head of a military establishment dedicated to pan-Arabist and later to nationalistic ideals, which they were ready to promote at their own political peril (e.g., by Nasser's making war with Israel in 1967 and by Sadat's making peace with it ten years later). When Mubarak took power after Sadat's assassination, he was plainly taking his place at the front of an existing regime that was authoritarian without being tyrannical.
So it’s worth asking whether, by now casting Mubarak aside, the Egyptian military is exploiting popular unrest as a pretext for preserving the old military regime against his tyrannical depredations, or replacing a Mubarak regime already in place with something new and different. Real democratic reform doesn’t have much of anything to do with the first scenario. It could (although it needn’t) have something to do with the second.