The New Egypt: A Return to Dictatorship?
Analysis: The military strongmen who oversaw Egypt’s political hierarchy for six decades hover ominously over the nation’s new democracy. Nivien Saleh argues the U.S. has the power to pry the generals’ fingers off the levers of power.
On October 9, Egypt’s military made international headlines: Instead of enabling Copts to peacefully demonstrate the dismantling of a church in Asyut, it joined the riot police in confronting the protesters. They received support from Egyptians, whom the state media had urged to “protect the army.” More than 200 people were wounded, and more than 20 died.
The incident led Western observers to question the military’s commitment to political reform. Journalists point to the ever-lengthening timetable for parliamentary and presidential elections, and to the large number of high-speed military trials that move alleged civilian offenders from arrest to sentencing in less than a week. But the wonderment with which Western audiences encounter Egyptian politics is rooted in a misunderstanding of the military’s role in the revolution. It’s well known that President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster empowered the country’s opposition forces. More obscurely, the revolution also empowered the country’s generals. What should the U.S. government do in the face of what may be a slow military power grab?
The Military’s Role in the 2011 Revolution
Egypt’s military has been a central part of the country’s political system since 1952, when the Free Officers ousted King Farouk, seized the reins of government, and established a republic. In 1956, Gamar Abdel Nasser won the presidency. He ensured that all important government portfolios were in the hands of military men and allowed the armed forces to engage in civilian production. As a result, they became an integral component of the Egyptian economy. The generals and their subordinates of flag rank commanded respect and privilege. This gave them stakes in maintaining the authoritarian republic.
Nasser’s successors were military officers, too: Anwar Sadat came from the Signal Corps, Hosni Mubarak from the Air Force. Under their rule, the public profile of the armed forces diminished. Both Sadat and Mubarak “demilitarized” the cabinet and often appeared in civilian dress. Still, in the background, the generals enjoyed privilege, for they were the ultimate guarantors of political stability.
In the mid-2000s, the standing of the military brass was challenged from two directions: On the one side, there were Egypt’s intelligence services, in particular the State Security Service, a brutal version of the FBI, whose domestic power only increased with the war on terror. On the other side was a new globalization-oriented business elite, fostered in the 1990s to provide the government with support during a structural adjustment program, which was administered by the World Bank and entailed unpopular sales of state-owned companies.
The members of the globalization elite clustered around President Mubarak’s son Gamal. Over the years, they advanced into key positions within the ruling National Democratic Party and helped groom Gamal for the presidency, in case his aging father should pass away. While President Mubarak had been trained as a bomber pilot, his son was an investment banker with no special bond to the armed forces. Not surprisingly, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, opposed the idea that the presidency might be inherited by a civilian.
Just a month before the revolution, it looked as though the military’s influence was on the wane. But the January 25 protests changed all that, for they weakened both the Interior Ministry and the State Security Service, destroyed the National Democratic Party’s claim to leadership (the party offices overlooking Tahrir were torched), and saw the arrest of Gamal and his friends on charges of corruption (such as the trial of steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz). The January 25 revolution, as Egyptians call it, buoyed the hopes of Egypt’s opposition forces.
But by eliminating the military’s political rivals, it also played into the hands of the generals.