Egypt’s military leadership will be eager to restore stability and normality to the country as quickly as possible, and to do that they will need to signal movement toward a democratic transition. They will need to name a transitional civilian leadership incorporating respected figures from civil society or opposition.
The military, or perhaps the new civilian leadership, will need to clarify the path forward toward constitutional reform to allow free elections. These steps will be essential to persuade protesters to begin leaving the streets and it is hard to see how military leaders can avoid them even if their ultimate intentions are not clear.
There will be many indications in the coming days of whether military leaders can leave behind old ways and move in the direction of democracy. Lifting the state of emergency immediately would be a critical signal; it is not as though Egypt lacks a regular penal code that would allow arrest and prosecution of those committing crimes.
Welcoming all relevant opposition and protest groups to participate in negotiations with the government, and being a bit patient with such groups as they attempt to organize themselves in the coming days and weeks, would bode well. Allowing the state-run media to report freely on developments, as they suddenly began to do in the last few days, and allowing a wide range of opinions to be expressed there would be good signs, whereas attempts to manipulate or mislead public opinion through such media would be ominous.
Even if military leaders believe they must lead the country toward democracy, there are many pitfalls along the way that could change their minds. Restarting Egypt’s economy and meeting what might be unrealistic expectations for prosperity are likely to prove difficult and might well lead to fresh protests. A resurgence of terrorism, sectarian tensions, or any form of external security threat could raise tensions between the military and civilians dangerously.
Yet it is important to keep in mind that, while there is no risk-free change in a country that has been under authoritarian government for so long, Egyptians today face the real possibility, if not the certainty, that they will soon have the right and the ability to choose and to change their government for the first time ever.