If Syria is to enjoy a pluralistic post-Assad era, then any delay in initiating the political transition could be ruinous.
The generals, not the dictator, hold the keys to the regime
It is strange how many people today seem surprised by the actions of the Egyptian armed forces, who have consolidated their political supremacy in recent days at the expense of parties and civil organisations that supported the so-called revolution of January 2011.
That's because virtually nothing in what occurred a year and a half ago spelt revolution. Yes, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, and was later arrested with his sons and other officials. But even this, plainly, represented a tactical retreat by the military to preserve its political and economic stakes in the system.
Conflicting reports yesterday indicated that the Mr Mubarak may be at death's door, but after three decades in power, his demise might have little import for Egypt's future. The true test of the success of the Arab uprisings was always about whether they replaced the old order's instruments of repression - principally the army and the security forces, but also the judiciary - with accountable institutions. Amid loose talk of a democratic Arab dawn, there was a tendency among many to trust too much in the intangible democratic genius of the people. Egypt's military council has poured a bucket of cold water on that optimism.
What is it the council intends to do? The dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament, the passage of an interim constitution that concentrates great power in the hands of the military, and the continued imposition of martial law are unquestionably a barely disguised coup. While no winner has officially been declared in Egypt's presidential election, the measures taken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suggest it is preparing for a possible victory by Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.
According to news reports, the generals will also name the chief of staff of the future president. The military has revived a special national defence council tasked with overseeing security matters, which it will effectively control. Moreover, under the interim constitution, the president has no oversight of the armed forces and the defence minister. Last year, the generals unsuccessfully sought broad prerogatives, which they have now imposed by writ.
That the armed forces could take so provocative a series of steps is not unusual. Post-colonial Arab militaries have been particularly adept at introducing thoroughly outrageous mechanisms of domination, usually ingrained in the social make-up of their societies. In Egypt, the state has historically been strong and society more or less homogeneous, allowing the military to take on the attributes of a supra-national body, extending its tentacles even into the economy.
In Syria, we have also been witnessing the durability of the institutions of repression, albeit from a very different angle than in Egypt. The Syrian army and security forces, or rather the praetorian units with the most sway, are there to uphold Assad family rule, and that of the relatively small clique around them, most of whom are members of the Alawite sect. Yet this power has also rested on a vast, carefully weighed bodyguard of officially institutionalised restrictions and counterweights, which transformed civilian rule (other than that of the senior political leadership) into a chimera.
Years ago, I interviewed an influential Syrian civilian official. In the midst of our conversation, the telephone rang. It was clear from the exchange that an officer was on the other side of the line, and needed a favour. The official actually stood up and spoke with painful deference. Here was as useful an illustration of the embedded superiority of the men with guns as I would ever get.
Ironically, Syria may have a somewhat better opportunity to revamp its army once President Bashar Al Assad leaves office than Egypt has had. While there is more carnage to come, Mr Al Assad's armed forces and security organs, after all the blood that they have shed, cannot conceivably anchor themselves in the system by managing, and hijacking, a political changeover. Rather, the core of any new military institution will be the disparate elements of the Free Syrian Army.
There are definite dangers in such a reality. As the Libyan experience has shown, when a conflict abruptly ends with the fall of a dictator, it can become very difficult for the civilian authorities to reimpose their will over the military actors. The armed opposition to Mr Al Assad is fragmented, and if that persists the centrifugal forces in Syrian society may come to define the post-war order. On the more positive side, we are bound to see a cleaner break with the past than in Egypt.
Even as western countries continue to sterilely debate what should be done about Syria, they don't seem to appreciate enough that a political transition, to be democratic and tolerant, must begin today. If Syria is to enjoy a pluralistic post-Assad era, respect for representative civilian rule, and reform of the army and intelligence services, then any delay in initiating that process may be ruinous.
The splits within the Syrian National Council have not helped. But this need not hinder outside programmes that could ameliorate coexistence in Syria and give hope to the refugees. Some have suggested creating a police force in exile, to take over security once the refugees return. Much could be done to facilitate social reconciliation and contain the understandable impulse that many will feel to resort to revenge once the Assads are overthrown.
In that regard, Egypt provides a cautionary tale. Many observers were so overwhelmed by their profound desire to see change in Cairo, and by the huge crowds, that they didn't realise that they were watching a conjuring trick manipulated by the officers, an illusion designed to perpetuate what had existed before. Follow the money, but follow the guns as well, before predicting too clement an Arab Spring.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling