This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
The general was a commoner who rose through the ranks as a career soldier,
attracting attention for his prowess and dedication. Becoming a
soldier/diplomat, he fought Egypt’s battles, negotiated with troublesome
neighbors and served several kings in succession. By the time the last of them
faltered, he had already been promoted to the position of heir to the throne.
This suited the country’s most important institution, the army, which threw its
support behind a man who could be trusted to preserve the throne, the realm and
the might of Egypt. The transition occurred with minimal fuss, and the general,
now pharaoh, ruled for decades.
The general was Horemheb, who after
serving Akhenaton and his son Tutankhamen, reigned from approximately 1319 to
1292 BCE. Today’s Horemheb is Lt.-Gen. Omar Suleiman, until recently minister
without portfolio and head of the Egyptian general intelligence directorate
(GID). Now he has been appointed vice president, a position that has gone
unfilled for 30 years. It is not a chance appointment.
Egypt would not
exist without the army. In antiquity, military force accomplished the
unification of the country, and the leader assumed the title of a god on earth.
From then on, only the combination of military force and state power could hold
together the long and narrow Nile Valley. Although Egypt was nominally the “gift
of the Nile,” the river was an unreliable provider, its annual floods ranging
from sufficient to catastrophically inadequate. The state, backed by the army,
fed the people in exchange for worshipful obedience.
By and large, the
strategy worked: Egypt might be stable for centuries before periodically
collapsing from prolonged droughts and famines, foreign invasions or local
Equally inevitable were cycles of reunification under firm
military leaders. This same praetorian pattern has persisted into the modern
world, and it is not unique to Egypt, but has also shown signs of breaking down
– most sensationally at the moment in Egypt itself, marked as that country is by
endemic corruption, severe economic deprivation and a huge and increasingly
ENTER OMAR Suleiman, born in Qena in 1936. Like Hosni
Mubarak, the president he served, Suleiman attended the Egyptian Military
Academy in Cairo and then the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. Unlike Mubarak,
who would command the air force in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Suleiman was an
infantryman (if also a thoughtful one, earning two degrees in political
science). He fought in Yemen and against Israel in 1967 and 1973, though in
exactly what role is unclear.
After Anwar Sadat concluded Egypt’s
historic 1978–79 peace treaty with Israel, and realigned Egypt with the US,
Suleiman received training in special forces operations at Fort Bragg, North
Carolina. In 1991 he became head of military intelligence, and in 1993 took over
the GID. His name became public only in 2000.
The GID is Egypt’s FBI,
CIA, and Department of Homeland Security rolled into one. As the eyes and ears
of Egypt, Suleiman has handled sensitive problems both public and private, from
negotiating with Hamas and Israel in connection with Gilad Schalit to dealing
with terror suspects handed over by the CIA for interrogation. (Some did not
survive the experience.) He is reported to be absolutely dedicated to fighting
Islamic radicals and to maintaining Egypt’s preeminence in the Arab
As both a cabinet minister and a military officer, Suleiman must
also look after the interests of the army. Central as ever, that institution has
more than 450,000 regular soldiers and about another half-million reservists,
along with similar numbers of paramilitary forces and at least a quarter-million
More than a military institution, it is a
military-industrial complex, manufacturing everything from tanks and small arms
to fire extinguishers and pharmaceuticals.
Together, the army and the
complex have built and continue to maintain entire cities, as well as vast
irrigation and reclamation projects. All this, together with a permanently
revolving door for retired officers, has created deep interrelationships between
the higher military echelons and the national economy.
survives the inevitable Islamist challenge, he may follow the path of his
ancient predecessor in a number of ways.
Horemheb, even as he rolled back
Akhenaton’s religious reforms, curbed abuses of state authority to quell unrest.
The “Edict of Horemheb” commemorates his domestic reforms, some of which may
even have been genuine. Suleiman, too, will have to move quickly to control
escalating political violence unleashed mostly by “supporters” of the outgoing
Mubarak regime. More crucially, he faces the eternal conundrum of any nation
that requires the military to be both guardian and provider: The army must be
Since the Camp David Accords of the late 1970s, the Egyptian
army has been radically transformed. Formerly a Soviet-style force – immense,
shambling, though deadly – it has been turned into an American-style military
whose American-trained officer corps operates in accordance with American
military doctrines. But who is the putative enemy against whom today’s army,
deadlier and more professional than ever, has targeted just about all its
military planning? Heavy tanks may occasionally be suited for securing Egypt’s
cities, but are better employed against another armored force.
with the army’s enormous fleet of helicopter gunships and F-16s, and its missile
frigates. These are hardly aimed at threats emanating from Libya or Sudan, much
Should the army become radicalized, or swing over to the
Islamist side, the implications for Israel would be ominous indeed.
example of the Turkish army is sobering. As the constitutional guardian of the
secular Kemalist state, the army staged three coups since 1960. Now it is
hobbled by legal restrictions demanded by the European Union and put in place by
the Islamist AKP party, hollowed out from within by Islamist infiltration of the
officer corps and terrified by patently absurd allegations of having engaged in
vast conspiracies against the state.
Hundreds of Turkish officers have
been arrested, and countless others silenced.
For the moment, $1.3
billion annually in American military aid may provide enough incentive for the
Egyptian military to maintain the peace treaty. But current negotiations for an
interim government and forthcoming presidential elections will almost certainly
bring the Muslim Brotherhood out of the shadows and into legitimate politics.
Inevitably, the army will gauge the political winds and act
An institution that has been Egypt’s most important for
5,000 years is likely to remain so. Whether the master spy Omar Suleiman will be
able, like his pharaonic predecessors, to hold back chaos, not to speak of
effectuating a transition to representative democracy, remains to be
seen.The writer is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and