The Sociology of Tahrir: The Three Blocs in Egypt's Revolution

02/11/2011 12:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Three significant blocs seem to be jostling one another in Tahrir Square and in Egypt itself: The educated middle or upper middle class, now sizable in Egypt (and the Middle East), is most prominent at this point, answering the call of its young activists and bloggers, many of them fluent in English, all of them fluent in (as they say in Arabic) blogging and the internet. These young people sparked the revolt and continue to inspire it.

Right next to them, right up against them, is the fascinatingly similar but radically different bloc led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Here the class and educational markers are more diverse: the core of the Brotherhood's organization remains educated and professional, as it has been from its founding in 1928; it includes many, many doctors, engineers, lawyers and small businessmen. But it also includes many humbler people, urban and rural, workers in factories, small farmers and farm-workers, bus drivers and taxi drivers -- and no doubt many of their children quietly serving in the army.

And then, surrounding the Square, surrounding all of Egypt's institutions, is its military, not a bloc, exactly, but certainly a force, the greatest force in Egyptian life, with its centralized decision-making, its caution (like Obama's) and its enormous power.

We have all been struck (and many of us surprised) by two things about the military in the midst of this great revolt: First, most noticeable thus far, is the restraint of the Egyptian military: its public face has been that of a benevolent, paternal figure, attentive, concerned, but restrained. It is, it seems, unwilling to use its weapons against the protesters. So long as it holds this posture, one can never be sure what to make of it. Is it that a command to ordinary soldiers to use violence would be disobeyed, wholly or partly? We can't be sure; perhaps the generals themselves can't be sure.

The second noteworthy aspect of the military's role during the protests is another surprise, not least to the military themselves. It is the obvious warmth and respect shown to the soldiers by all the protesters. This is at once reassuring and ambiguous. Again and again people in the Square repeat the point that the "soldiers come from the people... " They cheer them and greet them with smiles and applause. Deep down, however, the more sophisticated protesters know very well that the military in Egypt is precisely the source of its problems: Mubarak came from the military and has remained a military man, as all his speeches, including the most recent, make plain. His cabinet, with few exceptions, has been a military one. His choice of a successor -- Omar Suleiman -- remains not just from within the military but, worse, from within its brutal intelligence wing. Moreover, as in China, Egypt's military runs not just its defense policy but many of its industries as well. Its chiefs have long been privileged -- and corrupted. Foreign aid and foreign contracts have given the military leadership opportunities for wealth unimaginable to ordinary Egyptians (and ordinary soldiers).

During the weeks and days of these protests, moreover, some in the military have both countenanced and encouraged brutality and murder by their plain clothes colleagues and allies.

It is President Obama, among all American presidents, who stands out as an intellectual convinced of the uncertainty, the unpredictability, of great political struggles. One wonders, inevitably, what his private reflections may be on this great Midde Eastern earthquake. Which of Egypt's blocs will win out? Which will coalesce? Which, if any, will be suppressed, as so often before?

This revolution, like nearly all revolutions, holds great promise for Egypt but also great risks. Its massed supporters are unified in a simple, passionate cause: An end to Mubarak, to Mubarakism; a beginning for true Egyptian democracy. But blocs will and must emerge for democracy to work, and the blocs of power in Egypt will not easily concur on what is to be done to end corruption, to launch democracy, to steer Egypt towards openness and modernization.

This is a great and glorious revolution. So far it is secular and liberal. But behind it and within it are blocs of people. Some of these people will prove to be neither secular, nor liberal, nor perhaps, in the long term, even democratic. None of us can know in advance what good or ill this revolution may one day bring to its supporters, to its nation -- and to the world.