Massive protests roil a country’s political and economic center, calling for its authoritarian president to resign. After days of unrest, the military, seen as the premier national institution, pushes the president out of power and seizes authority for itself, calling for a “democratic transition” that they, of course, will oversee. Meanwhile, soldiers crush protests and launch a wave of brutal repression. This chain of events, more or less, has happened twice in the past two years in Egypt. While the details of Hosni Mubarak’s and Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow differ in myriad ways, the key element of popular unrest channeled by the military into maintaining and increasing its authority over Egypt is common to both. To paraphrase Voltaire, “Most countries have an army. The Egyptian Army has a country.”
Yet in other countries that have experienced unrest since the beginning of the Arab Spring, militaries have not proved particularly politically powerful. In Tunisia, while the defection of the military to the side of the protesters sounded the death knell for the Ben Ali regime, the military has since returned to the barracks, going so far as to refuse to take political power offered to them. Meanwhile, in Syria and Libya, the military has simply fallen apart, with mass defections to the opposition based on sectarian or tribal lines. Why then does the Egyptian military have so much clout?
This independent power of the Egyptian military has developed over time, beginning with the founding of the modern Egyptian political order in 1952. On July 23 1952, the so-called Free Officers’ Movement—commanded by a then little-known lieutenant colonel named Gamal Abdul Nasser—overthrew the Egyptian government. Egypt, ruled by a monarchy with a dysfunctional elitist constitutional regime and a pro-Western tilt, became a republic. Nasser, soon seizing direct power as president, instituted a “revolution from above”. This included radical land reform, state-led industrialization, a “non-aligned” but truly pro-Soviet foreign policy, and the suspension of Egypt’s limited democracy in favour of a harsh dictatorship.
The regime though, especially in the first decade of its existence, lacked popular support and was challenged by a variety of other political actors. Thus, Nasser and his allies moved to “coup-proof” their regime. Nasser did this by privileging the Egyptian officer corps, giving active and retired officers easy access to civilian government positions, the upper echelons of new state-owned businesses and the private sector, along with an independent military budget. While many officers also supported Nasser’s pan-Arab and revolutionary ideological ambitions, others supported the Free Officers primarily out of self-interest, providing an important base of support for the new regime, especially as they became entrenched in the system and their privileges.
While these privileges were partially rolled back during the 1970s under Anwar Sadat, as he tried to marginalize the military politically, under former general Hosni Mubarak they returned with a vengeance. Now powerful and deep-rooted, the military’s upper ranks supported the Mubarak regime politically as long as the material interests of their clique were satisfied. These interests were met further as Egypt liberalized its economy in the 1980s and 90s, as former officers and their families, with sons often having followed their fathers into the service, benefitted greatly from crony capitalism. Still, many officers were disaffected with the apparent rise of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and a civilian, along with a clique of his business cronies. In 2011, as Mubarak’s succession was still unclear and it became increasingly obvious that continuing support for Hosni Mubarak could threaten the army’s interests and popularity, the military launched a quiet putsch, pushing Mubarak out of power and seizing it for themselves.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s officer corps has become a primarily economic class. Officer training includes courses on economic and business management, while the military controls, directly and indirectly, between 15 and 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, in industries as varied as tourism, manufacturing and natural gas production. Retired generals sit on the boards of most major companies. In addition to dominating the economy directly, the military’s political authority has been entrenched. Under both the Morsi government’s constitution and the interim laws imposed since Morsi’s outster, the military budget—which takes up a huge portion of the Egyptian government’s overall budget—is not subject to outside scrutiny.
Potential for the reform of the military’s economic and political supremacy is non-existent. The newest military strongman, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, rules with support from a liberal elite more frightened of a majoritarian Islamist regime than a de-facto military dictatorship, while soldiers brutally repress opposition from pro-Morsi demonstrators. For the near future then, regardless of who rules Egypt on paper, the state and people will still be secondary to the interests of a privileged few, the pharaohs in uniform.
– Alex Langer
Photos: Hossam el-Hamalawy حسام الحملاوي , Creative Commons, Flickr