One of the most striking aspects of the recent Egyptian uprising was the role played by the military establishment. Throughout the uprising the army managed to simultaneously be both with the protestors, as evidenced by images of good natured mingling in Tahrir Square between citizens and soldiers, and against them, as reports of the detention and abuse of human rights activists and journalists seem to suggest. To any amateur observer, like me, this was confusing.

However, a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) sheds a certain amount of light on the situation, while also giving us some idea about what to expect over the next few months.

Army tank and protesters in Tahrir Square

Army tank and protesters in Tahrir Square by Joseph Hill, shared under Creative Commons

The first curious point about the uprising was that it was both a popular revolt and a military coup. These seemingly antithetical events appear to have worked in parallel to bring an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

Beginning on the 25th January, protesters took to the streets demanding the ousting of the 83-year-old autocrat, and had soon descended upon the symbolically potent Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers. 28th January – the ‘Friday of Anger’ as it is known – saw the protests swell in numbers, but also saw the replacement of the police and security services with the army.

The following day Mubarak appeared on state television and announced the dismissal of his cabinet and the speeding up of reforms. The same day he also appointed his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and Ahmad Shafiq as the new prime minister.

This overhaul also saw the dismissal of members of the business elite from the cabinet and Habib al-Adli from the interior ministry, who, according to the Egyptian writer Issandra El Amrani, had disappeared from public view once the army took over the building housing the Ministry of the Interior. While these moves removed some of the more hated aspects of the regime, they failed to deal with the central problem, i.e. Mubarak himself.

What the events of that weekend did do though was bolster the position of the military vis-a-vis the civilian regime. The weakening of the interior ministry and the National Democratic Party (NDP) left the military in charge and Mubarak not much more than a figurehead. As the ICG report puts it, “[i]n effect, from the moment tanks rolled into the cities late on the night of 28 January, the military became the ruler.”

This left the military in an awkward position. One of Egypt’s most respected institutions, it is considered by the population to be the defender of the nation and the institution that, as far as the national narrative is concerned, defeated Israel in the 1973 war. It has managed to maintain this image by remaining in the background of Egyptian politics, allowing the civilian government to take any flack while it sat back and enjoyed its position of unparalleled power.

However, since the weekend beginning on the 28th January, it has found itself in charge. Once Mubarak was removed and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was left at the helm, it found itself with the responsibility of overseeing the transitional period.

Prospects of Reform

Now that Egypt has entered a transitional period it is impossible to say with any certainty what is going to happen over the next few months. It is, however, justified to be sceptical about how deep democratic reforms will go when presided over by the military.

The Egyptian army is in charge of a business empire whose reach extends into most aspects of Egyptian society. As the ICG report explains,

“In addition to building power and water-treatment plants and baking bread for Egypt’s poor, the military, through the businesses it owns, produces electrical appliances, bottled water, olive oil, household pesticides and optical equipment. It runs hotels, nurseries and catering services. Its patronage network and promotion pipeline extend still further. Having retired officers as partners or members of a private company’s board of directors can smooth all variety of business transactions, as companies often run up against the need for military permits or approvals.

Much of Egypt’s land is owned by the military. Developers wishing to buy that land often find it easier to do so if they hire a construction company owned at least in part by a former officer. By a conservative estimate, military-owned companies employ tens of thousands of people.”

It does not seem likely that the military would do anything that would threaten its dominant position on the domestic front.

A more democratic approach to foreign policy under the military is also questionable, at least in the short term. Under Mubarak, Cairo was very much a US client. It guaranteed passage for US warships through the Suez Canal, cooperated with the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, kept the Muslim Brotherhood under control, maintained peace with Israel and the stranglehold on Gaza, and acted as a bulwark against the ‘resistance’ front led by Iran. It is doubtful that it would want to risk its $1.3 billion a year in US military aid by allowing policy changes that might threaten this.

However, as with all things in politics none of this is set in stone. The US may decide to use its considerable leverage in order to force the military down the road of genuine democratic reform. This seems unlikely though considering its strategic interests in “stability”.

The more likely source of pressure on the military will come from the Egyptian people. Maintaining the sort of popular protests that saw the removal of Mubarak is a tall order. While the will is there, the toll this extracts economically is immense. So much so in fact that many Egyptians probably feel grateful for the security that the army is providing in the short term.

However, if genuine reform is carried out it is difficult to see any other way. For genuine democracy can only emerge if the military is pressured by the people into carrying out reforms (easy to say, I know, sitting here in the UK). Walter Benjamin’s prescription (as the editors of MERIP have pointed out) seems most apt:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.


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