Egypt’s Entrenched Military
FIFTY YEARS ago, drawn to the perceived dynamism of fresh, young military leaders, scholars and policy analysts became enamored of the potential role of the military in political, economic and social modernization. The “man on horseback,” as S. E. Finer described it, was seen as best positioned to effect the transition from developing to modern societies. The military, it was believed, could draw on the institutional cohesion and its monopoly of coercive power to marshal the resources and will necessary to push societies forward. Egypt was studied as a prime example.
Things did not quite turn out as the academics expected. After overthrowing the monarchy and seizing power in 1952, the so-called Free Officers in Egypt constricted the political space and monopolized power, driving Islamists underground and marginalizing old-time liberal political elements. Their sweeping modernization programs nearly bankrupted Egypt. Ultimately, the monopoly of power achieved by Egypt’s revolutionists, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, primarily was used to maintain the military’s dominant position and ensure that its interests were protected and advanced.
To be sure, Nasser had grand—indeed, grandiose—dreams to revamp Egyptian society. In the name of agricultural reform, he broke up large landholdings and parceled out land to Egypt’s fellahin, or peasants. Though a socially progressive move, this initiative undercut agricultural economies of scale and helped transform Egypt into a major importer of wheat and other basic foodstuffs. In the name of reversing the evils of capitalism, the government became the initiator and owner of large-scale manufacturing enterprises, which ensured mass employment but also drained the national budget as huge losses ensued. Nationalized financial entities experienced a similar fate. In the name of promoting pan-Arab secular nationalism, Nasser threatened conservative Arab neighbors, ultimately involving Egypt in a messy civil war in Yemen that severely weakened Egypt’s military capabilities in the years before the 1967 war with Israel. By the late 1970s, a decade after Nasser’s death and more than twenty-five years into the Egyptian revolution, the best that could be said about the military-dominated Egypt was that national pride had been restored and all Egyptians suffered equally.
IN MANY respects, the next forty years under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak represented an effort to correct some of the missteps that occurred after the 1952 revolution. Sadat scaled down the rhetoric against Arab monarchies; switched Cold War allegiances from the Soviet Union to the United States; made war and then peace with Israel; tried to open the economy to private-sector activity; and experimented with a government-led multiparty system. Despite all these initiatives designed to correct the course of the Egyptian revolution, Sadat’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition elements ultimately led to his assassination at the hands of Islamist radicals within the military.