If the current crisis in Egypt is to be resolved peacefully, the military will
play a central role.
Few if any outside the armed forces, however, truly
understand the Egyptian military. The following is an attempt to begin the
process of better understanding this crucial institution.
army is very different from the American army. It is an institution – largely
self-sustained through enterprises such as farms, factories and hospitals – with
the dual purposes of defending the nation against external threats and
preserving domestic stability. It considers itself the defender of the people, a
view widely shared in the society at large. It performs the function of a
national guard as well as that of a national army.Separation from
One is struck by the degree of separation between the army and
society as a whole. Members of the military live on cantonments and do not
participate in the national political process. They cannot vote in
Egyptians do not know the army. The defense minister, the
chief of staff and the commanding generals are not nationally known
personalities. For example, several years ago I was sitting in the lobby of a
Washington hotel with the major-general who commanded the Presidential Guard and
six months later would be chief of staff. Two Egyptian ambassadors passed by and
I had to introduce them to the general. They did not know him or even his
The defense minister is also the minister of military production.
The armed forces produce many of their own essential goods and services. They
own large farms and produce most commodities consumed by the army. They have
bakeries, water bottling facilities and clothing factories. All of these are in
addition to the military production factories. The logic of these operations is
that it assures the military of essential supplies and insulates it from
corruption in the private sector.
This industrial capacity also gives the
military the ability to influence society in ways not seen in other countries.
Two years ago, riots occurred in the Nile Delta over the manipulation of the
supply of bread by private bakeries. The army was able to intervene and produce
enough bread in its bakeries to meet short-term popular demand, which gave the
government a peaceful window of opportunity to resolve the corruption
(Please note: The government supplies wheat to private bakeries at
subsidized prices. The bakeries are to use this wheat to make bread for the
poor. Some bakers in the Delta discovered that if they used this wheat to bake
full-price bread instead, profits were much higher. The result was insufficient
bread at subsidized prices.)
The armed forces also consider their farms and
industrial facilities as a means to have a positive impact on the life of the
people. When young men are drafted into the army, they are evaluated. Some do
not possess the skills and capabilities necessary to be a soldier. They instead
serve their required duty working at a military farm or factory, thus gaining
valuable training and job skills that will help them make a living for the rest
of their lives.
The military also has a large social support structure to
take care of its own. Service clubs provide officers a place to have social
occasions, such as wedding receptions and formal dinners, at a price they could
not afford in the private sector. By ordinary Egyptian standards, the perks are
quite nice. They are modest, however, when compared to the new business class
and Western standards. Living standards in the military are good, but nowhere
near that of the business elite.The new army
Thirty years of military
cooperation with the US in some ways has transformed the military. Thirty years
ago the officer corps was trained and educated in the Soviet bloc. Americans
were viewed with suspicion and as subverting national interests. Being
associated with Americans could be harmful to one’s career.
thousands of officers have trained with Americans. They undergo the same human
rights training as does the American military. They understand Americans and
many have close personal friends in the American military. American officers and
troops are no longer seen as threatening. Differences of policy are recognized,
but these are issues to be discussed, not barriers to
Despite its separation from the population as a whole, the
military is equally concerned about many of the same social trends that have
caused the wave of popular discontent. Officers openly express their displeasure
with the police. They cannot accept the brutality unleashed on the civilian
population they are supposed to protect. They take affront at the lack of
training and discipline among the police. This feeling is long-standing and has
not just developed over the last couple of years.
The military has viewed
with concern Egypt’s economic transformation during the last several
On the one hand, as nationalists, members of the armed forces are
proud that the country is developing its economy and entering the world market.
On the other, many have doubts that the radical transformation of the economy
has benefited the people.
In the process of making the economy more open,
many people were harmed.
The privatization of several hundred businesses
resulted in the firing of thousands, because bloated payrolls, while providing
jobs, were economically unjustified. At the same time, again at the urging of
the international community, government subsidies for a variety of essential
commodities were reduced or eliminated. Therefore, the same people who were
losing their jobs were also losing the social safety net that the government
In stark comparison, the new business class became
richer and richer. Conspicuous consumption became the new standard of wealth.
Gated communities and nicely watered golf courses sprang up in a land where
millions of people have no regularly running water.
leadership was concerned about what effect the increasing wealth disparity would
have on the general population. This concern was clearly illustrated in the
January cabinet reshuffle. All of the ministers who engineered the economic
transformation were removed.
The military will likely focus its attention
on making certain that even the poorest people are able to get basic
commodities. Disagreements could develop between the protesters and the
military, if the military believes that continuing protests are causing great
economic hardship for the citizenry.The military leadership
really do not know the military leadership. Thus, all the current
speculation related to the ongoing crisis is based on limited
The most senior level of the military is the equivalent of the
American World War II generation. Its officers fought in the country’s great
wars: the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the War of Attrition and the 1973 war. Their
entire lives have been devoted to the security and stability of Egypt. If they
have personal ambitions, these are not openly displayed. They work long hours
and expect others to work equally hard.
They are disciplined and
professional. Order and structure are important to them. These are serious men
who will not act precipitously. While listening to foreign views, they will not
give in to foreign pressure and absolutely do not want to be seen as giving in
to foreign pressure. They are first and foremost nationalists.
time, senior military personnel worked closely with their counterparts in Soviet
This relationship soured when the Soviet military
overplayed its hand, compelling Anwar Sadat to expel Soviet advisers from the
country, despite the risk of compromising its military capabilities in the
By contrast, the American military, well aware of the reasons
for Soviet failure, has been careful not to be seen as trying to control the
armed forces. The Americans respect national sensitivities and have been largely
successful in conveying this to the military leadership.
senior officers, the younger cadre of officers does not share the same
battlefield experience and has little or no recollection of the Soviet
They do know the American military and have trained with
them. They know the US and feel comfortable with Americans. As such, they are
more willing than the senior officers to engage in wide-ranging political
discussions with their American counterparts.
They are more comfortable
being critical of American Middle East policy and do not consider this as being
anti-American. They are above all nationalists.The Muslim Brotherhood
Military relations with the Muslim Brotherhood are strained. Sadat was
assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists within the military. Islamic terrorist
attacks in the 1990s were considered unacceptable to the military as a partially
foreign inspired assault upon Egypt. After the 1997 terrorist attack on tourists
in Luxor, the military had to intervene to help reestablish civil order. General
Intelligence Services under Omar Suleiman, however, was responsible for the
crackdown on the Brotherhood that followed.
The Brotherhood is still seen
as a potential threat to civil order and therefore needs to be
watched.The current crisis
The military only reluctantly intervenes in
domestic affairs. In the previous 35 years, it has interceded in internal
affairs only three times – the 1977 IMF bread riots, the 1985 police recruit
riots and the 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor. Protecting civilians and restoring
order were its primary objectives.
In the context of the current
situation, the military clearly faces more challenges than it ever has in the
past. The violence of the last several weeks is beyond what anyone anticipated.
The military is balancing its desire for order and discipline with its duty to
protect civilians. The military will move cautiously, but firmly, with full
awareness of its stabilizing role.
Political negotiations with the
protesters and others over the future of Egypt will be in the hands of the vice
president and the prime minister. The military leadership will be informed and
will keep a watchful eye on the negotiations. It is unlikely to be directly
involved. Negotiating the details of the form of the future government is not
its responsibility, but it does have a keen interest in it.The writer is
a scholar at the Middle East Institute. The piece first appeared as a Middle
East Institute Policy Insight at www.mei.edu.