Egypt’s transformed military

30 years of cooperation with the US has remade this crucial and self-sufficient institution

Egypt Protests Tanks 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egypt Protests Tanks 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
The Egyptian 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 Egyptian society
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 elections.
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 name.
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 issue.
(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.
Click for full Jpost coverage of Egypt
Click for full Jpost coverage of Egypt
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.
Today, 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 cooperation.
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 years.
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 historically provided.
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.
The military 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
Outsiders really do not know the military leadership. Thus, all the current speculation related to the ongoing crisis is based on limited knowledge.
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.
For a time, senior military personnel worked closely with their counterparts in Soviet bloc countries.
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 process.
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.
Unlike the senior officers, the younger cadre of officers does not share the same battlefield experience and has little or no recollection of the Soviet experience.
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