Incentives Matter, even (especially) during a revolution

As everyone’s been following the Egyptian revolution knows, one of the (to novices) surprising elements has been the passivity of the military, which has basically stood aside as the Egyptian protesters took over Cairo and Alexandria. They did apparently try to break up some of the battles between pro- and anti- Mubarak protesters, but they did appear to stand against Mubarak, issuing a letter in support of the Egyptian people. The question is, why?

As I understand it, armies of autocrats are built on a system of bribery — goodies are handed down the chain, so that loyalties within loyalties are formed, allowing those at the top to control people all the way down the line, forcing them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. This is one of the reasons that illiberal nations tend to have massive cabinets, in order to spread around the wealth and the loyalty. So why isn’t this system working out for Mubarak?

Because, as Planet Money reports, the Egyptian military has a much more lucrative offer from Egyptian consumers. The Egyptian military exploded in size during its wars against Israel, and following peace there wasn’t any political will to downsize it — so, in spite of its irrelevance, the military continued to grow. It grew to become a government backed industrial powerhouse, and so now produces goods from cars to clothing; from natural gas to much of the food. And so the defense minister, Mohamed Tantawi, needs to consider not just how the current power structure — namely Mubarak — is giving him the goods, but how the continued good will of the Egyptian people matter to the military’s ability to be a commercial juggernaut.

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