Egyptians pose yesterday on an army tank in Cairo.(John Moore/Getty Images)

Exactly one week ago, with President Hosni Mubarak’s reign, events in Cairo, and Egyptian democracy all in states of uncertainty, I explored what Egypt’s prime Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, really is, and what it would do if it ever came to power. It was a question on many minds then, and it remains pertinent, and I hope to explore it further this week. However, today—with Mubarak gone (who knows where to?), the crowds in Tahrir Square overjoyed and dispersed (they even cleaned up after themselves!), and Egyptian democracy apparently being birthed, it is clear that we all were thinking too far ahead.

Yesterday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, and effectively imposed martial law; it announced that Defense Minister Tantawi Mohamed Hussein Tantawi—a field marshal and a known Mubarak loyalist—would be the government’s figurehead; and it promised happy but also skeptical protesters that a democratic transition is underway. Right now, the number one question worth answering about Egypt—and it’s relevant not only to Egypt, but to the rest of the region, Israel, and the United States—is: Is the military really going to usher in democracy?

First, the pessimists. Top think-tanker Jon B. Alterman notes that Mubarak may be gone but his system, which relied above all on the respect and ultimate superiority of (what else?) the military, has remained. “The army’s return suggests a huge step backward,” he argues. “Military rule does not allow for bargaining between interest groups, nor does it presage a constitutional convention between an array of actors in Egyptian political life. Rather, it suggests even heavier management of the political process, on the one hand, and the removal of any timeline for change on the other.” He concludes, of Mubarak, “Long accused of being an unimaginative bureaucrat, he is turning over the country to like-minded septuagenarians who mirror his caution.” Pankaj Mishra has a fabulous think-piece that looks to Egypt’s past and finds, mostly, grounds to believe that a military-type authoritarian government that has been in place for almost six full decades is probably not going to go away even in six months: “Egypt’s own history,” he observes, “warns us that the foundations of despotism are deep and wide.” For now, the Washington Post reports, many Mubarak loyalists—literally, the same people—are in the same important positions.

So why should we take the army at its word when it says democracy is on the way? Fred Kaplan, of Slate, offers a persuasive case that democracy was never going to be established in Egypt via any means other than a period of military takeover: “Only the military can get such a broader revolution going, because it is the only Egyptian institution that has the power, the organization, and the popular respect to do so,” he points out. “This is the case because, for all these decades, Mubarak had solidified his rule precisely by preventing any other institutions from taking form.” Which is not to say that military rule will definitely lead to democracy, but it is to say that it doesn’t preclude it, and in fact, of all the possible outcomes that we could have envisioned a week ago—Mubarak still in-charge (he’s not), Vice President Omar Suleiman having taken over (for the time being, he seems to have been pushed aside)—it is the one most likely to pave the way to democracy.

Can’t think of a single country that saw military rule lead the way to genuine democracy? Kaplan cites Turkey. Can’t think of a second? Kaplan cites the United States (remember that when George Washington was elected president, he was in many ways an army strongman whose voluntary cession of power still makes him our greatest president). Of course, Egypt is more likely to end up like Turkey, which is governed by a moderate Islamist party, than like the U.S. And our best friend Turkey is not (and even less so Israel’s); nor is Turkey Muslim Brotherhoodstan, as some fear Egypt will become.

I’ll align myself with the optimists, because I think over the past three weeks the Egyptian people demonstrated not only their will but their ability to get what they want (they were aided by the fact that the military could not use force on them for fear of international outrage, a truism that presumably still obtains). And what the Egyptian people want is democracy. And, as Professor Samer Shehata told me last week, they are ready for it: “People in Egypt have for years, for decades, wanted certain things,” he said. “Everyone who has been paying attention knows them. Egypt is a heavy state, a centralized state that has been existing for a long time. So no, there is no, ‘Too much change, too quickly.’”

Egypt’s Military Dissolves Parliament and Calls for Vote [NYT]
Where Is Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak? [WP]
Mubarak Is Out, But Egypt’s Status Quo Stays [WP]
The Tyrant Is Gone. Now the Real Struggle Begins for Egypt [Guardian]
Mubarak Loyalists Change Stripes To Fit Into the New Egypt [WP]
Now What? [Slate]
Earlier: Why Egypt Can Handle Democracy