Egypt's Entrenched Military

August 22, 2012 Topic: Post-ConflictState of the Military Regions: Egypt

Egypt's Entrenched Military

Mini Teaser: The 2011 Tahrir uprising focused its wrath on Egypt’s authoritarian rule and economic inequalities. But now that the military seeks to co-opt the revolution, the power struggle is just beginning.

by Author(s): Daniel KurtzerMary Svenstrup

The third measure of the military’s attitude will be the nature of domestic legislation adopted by the parliament and supported by the executive. The Egyptian military always has been suspicious of the attitudes and activities of civil society, and the military has taken steps over the years to root out cells of Islamists as well as leftists in the media and trade unions yearning for a return to Nasser’s policies. This will become harder in the period ahead, but the military’s commitment to countering extremists is unlikely to flag. In this respect, the direction of national legislation, whether toward more Islamic piety or vis-à-vis economic and social policy, will be watched carefully by the military.

The final barometer will be the attitudes of Egypt’s partners and foes. The military’s relationship with the United States is particularly important, not only because of American assistance but also because of their collaboration on training, doctrine and arms sales. Since the 1970s, the Egyptian military has been in transition from Soviet arms, doctrine and training. This process is far from complete, and the military may be too committed to U.S. arms to change yet again. To be sure, arms from other suppliers have been and can continue to be assimilated into the inventory, but there is simply too much American equipment on hand for the military brass to consider a change in primary patrons.

Does this mean the United States can retain leverage over Egypt on the basis of the Egyptian military’s desire to maintain military relations? The answer is less than certain. A total, precipitous termination of U.S. assistance would be cataclysmic for both sides. Short of that, bilateral dialogue remains healthy, but as the NGO crisis in early 2012 demonstrated, intragovernment maneuvering in this period of transition can take precedence over preserving every aspect of the relationship with the United States. Thus, the United States will acquire some leverage as a result of continued economic and military assistance, but this leverage will have less current value than many in the United States would like to believe.

The most important determinant of Egypt’s postrevolution political identity will result from the relationship between the military and newly elected civilian leaders, particularly President Morsi. Aid money and foreign support may be helpful to address humanitarian issues and economic inequalities but will do little to stabilize or manage the political climate. Thus, the next steps in the transition, particularly drafting the new constitution, will present several opportunities for Morsi—like Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak before him—to try to outmaneuver the military and reestablish the dominance of the office of the president. This internal power struggle will ultimately be the most critical factor in shaping Egypt’s democratic path.

Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Mary Svenstrup recently earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School.

Image: Amr Farouq Mohammed 

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