The leaders of the 1952 revolution, Nasser’s Free Officers, were all military men, and their struggle against the British interlopers and the increasingly unpopular King Farouk created an image of the military as the core of the Egyptian nationalist identity. The military also often was perceived—by the public and by itself—as the only group strong enough to unify the country against external opposition and save the nation from a collapsing government.
These conditions under which the Free Officers came to power gave them nearly absolute authority. Thus, they faced little resistance when they banned all political parties and established the Liberation Rally to channel all political activity to support Nasser’s regime. Not even the large Muslim Brotherhood network posed a challenge to the Free Officers’ authority. Of course, the Brotherhood did not have the organizational capacity or political acumen in the 1950s that it had achieved by 2011. But even if it had been better equipped to participate in formal governance, the Brotherhood could not have challenged the popularity and prestige of the military. Thus, during the Nasser era, the military faced no real opposition, and it exercised and accumulated power. The real struggle for political supremacy was within the military itself.
As he fended off challenges from the Brotherhood and old-time liberal politicians, Nasser struggled to consolidate power against his adviser and supposed friend, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, the popular leader of the military and Nasser’s only potential governmental rival. Nasser was aided in this rivalry by military defeats and setbacks, including Egypt’s military humiliation in the 1956 Suez War and the debilitating deployment of Egyptian forces in Yemen in the 1960s. Despite these setbacks, Amer remained popular until the 1967 war against Israel, which proved to be his undoing. Amer resigned in disgrace, then was arrested and eventually committed suicide in prison.
Although Nasser relied on the military to crush the formation of any civilian opposition groups, he could not tolerate a military leader holding more power than he. Amer’s downfall enhanced Nasser’s power and marked the initial transition from a military engaged heavily in politics to a more professional military. Nasser finalized this transition when he purged the military leadership following the 1967 war. After this, all of the military leaders from the 1952 revolution, for whom the Egyptian people felt extreme fondness and loyalty, had been removed from power. This allowed Nasser to shift the spotlight fully onto his executive office.
The Sadat era brought about further military disengagement from politics and a new focus on military professionalism and its own corporate economic interests. Sadat strategically reinforced the military’s subordination to the presidential office by removing Nasser loyalists in the military leadership and the civilian Arab Socialist Union during the 1971 “corrective revolution.” This resulted in a cadre of top generals and civil servants who owed their positions to Sadat, ensuring he would face little challenge from the military. Sadat’s focus on regaining the Sinai Peninsula from Israel led the military further in the direction of professionalization. The military’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal and its ability to hold ground against Israel’s counterattack restored the military’s credibility, boosted its morale and reinforced its national-defense role.
Sadat gradually removed the military from daily politics but allowed—perhaps even encouraged—the military to increase its privileged status in Egyptian society. Imad Harb, a Middle East specialist based in the UAE, notes that the 1979 “Law 32” gave the military financial and institutional independence from the government’s budget and oversight activities and allowed it to open private accounts in commercial banks. Thus, profits from the military’s economic activities were returned to its own coffers, making it impossible for Egyptians or civilian government officials to have meaningful input on budget priorities or oversight of expenditures.
Mubarak continued both to professionalize the military and to expand its economic strength and independence. The tradeoff was the military’s complete subordination to the president. This tradeoff allowed the military to preserve three key corporate interests during this period.
First, the military sought to preserve the Egyptian people’s view that it is the core institution in the country’s national identity. Indeed, the military plays an important socialization role through the annual conscription of about 12 percent of young Egyptian males. Additionally, the military is a major source of employment for the country. According to the State Department’s “World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers” report, in 2005 the military employed about 440,000 Egyptians, over 2 percent of the male working-age population.
Second, although Egypt did not face a salient external threat as it did in the 1970s, the military leaders sought control over national-defense matters, including the definition of threats and the ability to declare war. This principally means maintaining control of the Ministry of Defense, leaving the Interior Ministry (and internal security) under control of the presidency. In Mubarak’s time, this division of powers worked well, but it raises serious questions in the postrevolution political configuration.
Third, the military wanted to protect its economic interests and its ability to operate its companies beyond political or public scrutiny. The military now owns and operates defense and arms industries, civilian industries, agriculture and national infrastructure. Former trade minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid estimated that the military’s empire comprises less than 10 percent of the Egyptian economy. This estimate may be on the low side. Amr Hamzawy, a former research director for the Carnegie Middle East Center recently elected to the new Egyptian parliament, pegged the military’s economic activity at up to 30 percent of Egypt’s total economy, or about $60 billion. The military will do everything in its power to maintain its business holdings, including its ability to keep its activities off-budget and secret as stipulated in Law 32. As Robert Springborg, a scholar on Egypt’s military at the Naval Postgraduate School, has noted: “Protecting its businesses from scrutiny and accountability is a red line the military will draw. And that means there can be no meaningful civilian oversight.”
Under Mubarak, the military did not seek to engage directly in the daily governance of the country. Its synergistic relationship with the office of the president permitted this behind-the-scenes approach: the military remained loyal to the executive branch, and the president protected the military’s privileged position. This dynamic removed the military from political accountability, allowing it to continue its activities while also maintaining its positive image in the minds of Egyptians.
IN JANUARY 2011, Egyptians took to the streets. After less than three weeks of protests, Mubarak stepped down, ending nearly thirty years in office. Fearing a political vacuum, the military declared itself the interim ruler of the country in the form of the SCAF. For the first time since the 1952 revolution, the military governed Egypt directly.
Drawing on the positive image the military earned in the eyes of the Tahrir revolutionaries, the SCAF fancied itself as the only national actor with the legitimacy, ability and standing to protect the country. Despite close ties to Mubarak, the SCAF’s decisive move to force his ouster further built the military’s credibility as an institution willing to act in the national interest.
Once in the political spotlight, however, the SCAF found its activities scrutinized closely and measured against an undefined scale of progress toward civilian rule and democracy. In large measure, the SCAF failed these tests, repeatedly giving priority to preserving its own interests over any rapid democratic transition. Despite initial favor with the Egyptian people, the SCAF’s successive blunders and missteps highlighted its self-interested political and economic motives, weakened its popularity and called into question the sincerity of its role as the defender of the Egyptian state.
The SCAF seemed to regard all political movements as self-centered and myopic, with the initial exception of the Muslim Brotherhood. After decades of exclusion from the formal political process, the Brotherhood turned its attention to an electoral agenda, establishing the Freedom and Justice Party. At the onset of the revolution, the Brotherhood recognized the military’s popularity and legitimacy in the eyes of the people and thus was initially supportive of the SCAF’s decisions. In February 2011, the SCAF introduced nine amendments to the constitution, which included shortening the presidential term, creating a two-term limit, expanding the pool of potential presidential candidates and restricting the application of emergency law. Despite protests from youth and activists, the Brotherhood supported these amendments, which were passed in a popular referendum with 77 percent approval in March 2011.
Over time, however, the core interests of the military and the Brotherhood diverged: the SCAF sought to ensure its economic interests and its position above the law and politics, while the Brotherhood sought power to rule Egypt and thereby legitimize its Islamist agenda. This conflict was first evident in the Brotherhood’s response to the SCAF’s constitutional declaration, or the so-called Selmi document—a sixty-three-article decree that outlined “supraconstitutional” principles, including giving the SCAF veto power over the constitution and preventing future presidents, legislators and the public from inspecting the details of the military budget. This document also gave the SCAF power to nominate eighty members to the constitutional drafting assembly, thereby denying the Muslim Brotherhood an expected majority. The Selmi document was submitted by Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi to about five hundred politicians in November 2011. It was quickly condemned by most political groups, including the Brotherhood, and it reignited protests in Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of mostly Islamist protestors rallied in the largest demonstration since the revolution. The SCAF appeared to withdraw the document, although its core principles reemerged in June 2012, during the constitutional crisis created by a court’s ruling that invalidated the parliamentary elections. The document, both in 2011 and 2012, revealed the SCAF’s true political ambitions.Image: Pullquote: All of Egypt’s past presidents—Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak—were former military officers, and they relied on this military legacy to bolster their legitimacy.Essay Types: Essay