What Factors Explain the Central Role of the Military in Egyptian Politics?

Ever ince the unilateral inception of Egypt as an independent state on February 22nd 1922, Egypt’s military has been a key power-broker in the internal and external political system. This was signified by the rise of leaders such as Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and finally Sisi, Egypt’s self-appointed “president”. A multitude of factors explain the military’s central role in Egyptian politics, none of which are entirely mutually exclusive.

Firstly, the historical context of Egypt is crucial. Egypt was under the de facto rule of Britain since at least 1882. This originated in the 19th century, when the Egyptian government spent huge amounts on developing infrastructure. Most went towards the military, giving them a sense of entitlement to privilege and power (which lasts to this day). The economic decline (resulting from the inability to repay European loans) resulted in European powers repossessing the Suez Canal and the treasury; de facto control. By 1882, the Egyptians were vehemently anti-British. A military-led uprising against the western-backed regime of Tewfik Pasha failed in 1882. Egypt became a protectorate in 1914. Fuad I became Sultan, a puppet in reality. A 1919 uprising was crushed, killing 800. This only served to further turn the populous towards nationalism, anti-colonialism, and admiration for the military, which increasingly became seen as synonymous with the people, despite “a very limited role” in politics. Egypt finally became ostensibly independent in 1922, although British troops remained at the Suez Canal.

A weak government in the aftermath of independence, frustration with the poor performance of the army in the Arab-Israeli war, and the corruption of pro-British monarch King Farouk, led to a coup by the Free Officers Movement on July 23rd 1952, overthrowing the hated monarchy. This solidified the military’s popularity in the eyes of Egyptians, as the nation’s liberator. This image has been crucial in the continuation of the military’s grip on politics; even as protesters were attacked in the revolution of 2011, a common slogan being: “The army and the people are one hand.” When Morsi was ousted in July, the army’s move was supported by people who saw the army as defending their interests, despite the horrific levels of violence directed against the opposition, particularly during the slaughter in Rabaa square.

Members of the Free Officers movement. Going from left to right: Zakariya Mohieddine, Abdel Latif Boghdadi, Kamel el-Din Hussein (standing), Gamal Abdel Nasser, Abdel Hakim Amer, Muhammad Naguib, Ahmad Shawki. Nasser would emerge as their ultimate leader in 1956, and from them onward until his death in 1970, when Sadat assumed the throne.

Military control of society was consolidated when the army’s power allowed it to abolish the civilian government and constitution in 1953. Nasser took power in 1956, and nationalist fever heightened, given his anti-imperialist stance (especially after the Suez invasion), charisma, and patriotism, in spite of the fact that he,in the words of Richie Ovendale, “failed” as a whole his pan-Arab ambitions for Egypt. When he died in 1970, his successor Anwar Sadat inherited a society conditioned by the military from top to bottom, further consolidated by the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Due to his immense popularity, Nasser could strengthen the military‟s power while shielding it from criticism. This has been a crucial means by which the army dominates politics. Criticism of the army is seen by many as un-patriotic. Questioning the army’s monopoly over the nation’s affairs can be seen as treasonous, and it maintains the right to conceal information sensitive to the military’s power. This illustrates another very successful way that the army has managed to ensure control of the political system; making any challenge to the military’s status taboo by manipulating strong feelings of anti-westernism and nationalism to silence any critical discourse. In the words of one analyst: “Sixty years of military rule and indoctrination since 1952 means that Egypt remains a military society through and through”. This is especially relevant in both Egyptian politics and society, where “coercive structures coincided with hierarchically organised patrimonial social structures.”

The army has  itself within the political and economic structure of society, making it seem an indispensable element of society and politics in the eyes of most Egyptians. The role it has carved out in society enabled it to consolidate political control, and still does. Over 40% of the economy has been controlled by the army for decades, at all levels of business, enterprise, and society. It even controls work and services related to Egypt‟s education system and child-care programs.

This political behemoth, working in tandem with the monopoly it has carved out for itself in society, has made the army almost untouchable in all aspects of public and political life, with a clear endorsement from the majority of the public over the course of several decades, especially since 1952. If they don‟t have a political interest in backing the armed forces, they often certainly have self-interest. As Zollner simply put it, “A strong Army means jobs to many Egyptians.” Few in Egypt, especially when 40% of the population isn’t fully literate, and many are below the poverty line, will want to bite the hand constantly feeding them.

Even politicians such as Mubarak and Morsi, huge power-houses in their own right (the former in the National Democratic Party and the latter in the Freedom and Justice Party), were completely unable to challenge the military monopoly. Morsi‟s decision to have his administration take the side of the opposition in the Syrian Civil War, and attempt to grant his office stronger political powers culminated in the army abandoning him and staging a coup. The military leaders were no doubt concerned that $2bn of US aid would cease to flow into the coffers if Egypt destabilised the region‟s fragile peace, especially since the army is being “essentially paid” (and has been since 1978, when Sadat made peace with Israel) to help maintain regional peace. The army’s long-standing, remuneratively neutral regional stance seemed threatened by such a bold move, and this was a “tipping point” for them.

March 26th 1979: The fatal handshake that spelled Egypt being held to perpetual ransom by the army, on behalf of foreign powers: president Anwar Sadat shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Such a questionably legal action was (at the time) backed by a large number of people, despite atrocities regularly committed by the security forces during the 2011-2012 post-Mubarak
period. The army‟s conditioning of society seemed to pay off, as millions overlooked this as a wave of patriotism swept Egypt due to the all-too familiar use of army-influenced media outlets in whipping up popular sentiment, and outwardly patriotic shows of force in the days before the coup.

Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir, notorious Israeli leader who claimed in 1979 that there were “no such thing as Palestinians” prior to the founding of Israel.

Even Mubarak, a long-time ally, president since 1980, and one of their own officers (a former air force commander) was abandoned in 2011 once it became apparent that he was more liability than asset. They allowed the figurehead of the regime to be torn-down (the military‟s blatant role in Mubarak‟s apparatus of nepotism and fear was overlooked), but the body (the military and security apparatus) was still very much intact, (literally) marching its way throughout Egyptian politics and society. This event of a tyrant‟s forces turning on their commander is nothing new (as Ceausescu
and Allende discovered) but in the Egyptian context, it is a crucial in explaining the military’s role; it does its best to turn to the side which will be most beneficial to its interests. “Since 1973 the military keeps a low political profile, “tacitly guaranteeing the rule of successive, unpopular rulers, while not being visibly connected to them”. Even Sisi attempted to distance himself from the army in order to become an (ostensibly) civilian leader, which he became on June 8th 2014.

It should be remembered that while such practices wouldn’t stand in a society following a long-standing system of democracy, in the context of Egypt (with a visible lack of democratic institutions, a void filled by the military, and a shortage of independent media outlets) it is easy to see why the scope of military influence has steadily grown. Egyptian society was ripe for fostering a strong-man culture; the public, being raised in it, will often enthusiastically venerate leaders who show their power, prestige and strength; not for issues related to liberty or free-speech, but because they’re seen as sources of stability. This pattern is visible from the time of Nasser to Sisi (it is more than coincidental that Sisi is constantly compared to Nasser). Just as Nasser claimed Egypt was “the center from which civilization has radiated throughout the world” and a “genius nation”, the current military regime is using the same patriotic rhetoric, in tandem with the suffocating personality cult of Sisi. Iust like Nasser, he also called for “unification of Arabs”.

External powers (notably the US, Israel and the UK) have an interest in the Egyptian army keeping the politicians in check since the Camp David Accords of 1978, meaning that they will carry on supporting the Egyptian army, and thus encouraging it to exert control over politics in order to keep the peace along the borders of Israel. Even when the military’s hold on society appears threatened due to the popular uprisings (Sisi himself bemoaned what he perceived to be the “shattering” of the military’s grip in the 2011 revolution) their dedication to upholding the accords is unwavering; their zeal in helping the Israeli army to starve the innocent civilians of Gaza by destroying supply tunnels is a particularly notorious example. The military’s continued efforts to grab power since the coup despite growing opposition from the population (a good portion of whom disapprove of the removal of the legitimate president) lend weight to these suspicions.

Mubarak’s preferred Candidate for Sisi’s “elections” should come as no surprise. Caricature via Latuff.

Another means the Egyptian army has used to secure a central role in Egyptian politics is the periodic vilification/repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in both society and politics. The Brotherhood (commonly called the Ikhwan) dates back well before the Free Officers Movement, and supported the 1952 coup. However, huge differences of opinion boiled to the surface between the military and the Brotherhood, which culminated in an assassination attempt directed against Nasser in 1956 (which some believe was a false-flag). The military struck back, killing many members of the Brotherhood, imprisoning leaders, and outlawing the movement. The repression of the Brotherhood, on the grounds that it was an extremist organisation hell-bent on terrorising Egyptian society itself induced extremism (maybe this was intentional). Sayyid Qutb, a prominent leader, revised his previous ideas and produced a manifesto entitled Milestones Along the Way, arguing that an uncompromising, undemocratic, militant brand of Islamism was needed to achieve victory in the face of military repression, and that the Egyptian secular government was “keeping us (Muslims) from living the sort of life which is demanded by our Creator” via “force and oppression” (Qutb, 1964). This hit a nerve with disillusioned Islamists and became “an inspiration for generations of extremists”. Since the actions of Nasser‟s military regime had created the very radicalised elements they were allegedly fighting against, they had at hand the very bogeymen they could use as an excuse to quash any dissent as they pleased, under the façade of fighting “terrorism”. This tactic has not only tapped into what Schatz aptly calls a deep well of paranoia” in Egyptian society, but appeals to western nations eager to find allies in the wake of the “war on terror”.

“You killed over 2600 protesters in one go? Good job! Billions of dollars of aid coming your way!”

Western nations have been wary of Islamists for decades. Again, while this tactic is not particularly new (Putin made good use of it in his rapprochement with the US in 2001, during the second Chechen war), it is a tactic which has become the lynchpin of the Egyptian army’s massive role in Egyptian politics. By homogenizing a whole section of its opponents as “terrorists”, it has secured itself firm friends, and uses this narrative to “justify the authoritarian nature of the political system for six decades”. The Muslim brotherhood’s (arguably) botched attempt at governance (2012-2013) did little to redeem it in the eyes of some, its actions led some sections of society to  conclude that it was “a transnational hegemonic movement bent on monopolising power.” But no matter how poor a job it allegedly did while in power, none of this excuses the illegal ousting of the elected government, to say nothing of the massacres of opposition protesters.

In ousting Morsi the military replayed the same tactics it utilised to great effect in the 50s and 60s; banning the brotherhood, enacting violent reprisals, and making it a viable scapegoat, both in the military regime’s rhetoric and attempt to link it to extremism. However the Ikhwan’s single-minded policies can be traced to decades of repression. The army effectively created their own political bogeymen so as to hold the political system to ransom and make their monopoly indispensable.

Since Sisi’s “election”, over 16,000 people have been jailed for merely having political opinions of their own, Al-Jazeera journalists have been imprisoned and convicted on ludicrous charges, 277 death sentences have been handed down to opponents of the regime (the original number was over 1200, before international outcry alarmed the regime), and the new “protest law” enacted in November 2013 has been used to smother anti-Sisi protests. Hundreds of university students and young people suspected of opposing the regime have also been unaccountably arrested. Mubarak must be proud. The old guard is back in full force.

Mubarak will no doubt receive a severe sentence for his crimes…

The clear conclusion is that several factors can concisely explain the Egyptian military’s monopoly of the political system for at least half a century: the historical context of a post-colonial Egypt, the military as an allegedly indispensable force in society and the economy (thus securing the loyalty of a strong sector of the populace), and especially the vilification of a whole opposition bloc as dangerous terrorists worthy of repression (the justification for the army’s omnipresent strong hand).
All these factors have ensured that the Egyptian military has a hugely important role in politics, and will maintain this role for decades to come, especially if its external backing continues in the aftermath of the ridiculous “election” of Sisi.

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