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Military in Politics

The Egyptian military dominated Egyptian politics for decades until the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak, himself an ex-military commander. It has a long history of animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's most organized political party. In the turbulent world of post-Mubarak Egyptian politics, the military is seen by many as an institution that offers stability. According to a Zogby poll published in June 2013, the army as an institution had a 94-percent confidence level. About 60 percent of non-Islamists favored a temporary return to army rule, while almost all Islamists opposed it. Most er Egyptian men have served in the army as a conscript, one reason why some view the army's rank and file as part of the national fabric.

The Egyptian military gave President Mohamed Morsi and opposition leaders 48 hours to settle their differences and agree on a path forward. If they don’t, according to the military, it will issue its own plan for Egypt’s future. The ultimatum was delivered 01 July 2013 by Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The military’s ultimatum also came after anti-government demonstrations throughout Egypt on Sunday that were the largest since the 2011 revolution that swept former president Hosni Mubarak from power. Arabic-language media quoted the Interior Ministry saying the crowds in Cairo and other cities across Egypt totaled as many as 3 million people. On 03 July 2013 Egypt's army took power from President Mohamed Morsi and suspended the constitution. Egyptian Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that until a new president is elected, the chief justice of the Constitutional Court will have the power to hand down presidential decrees and a technocratic government will run the country.

Egypt's Higher Military Council said in a statement on Friday 11 February 2011 that it had no plans of assuming long-term power over the country after Hosni Mubarak resigned from his presidential post earlier in the day. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 82, who ruled the country for almost 30 years, stepped down on Friday after 18 days of heated protests demanding his resignation. "The Higher Military Council is not an alternative to the legal power that would please the Egyptian people," the statement read. The military also promised free elections, but set no date for them, and announced a conditional offer to end 30 years of emergency rule "as soon as current circumstances end." Mohamed Morsy was elected President of the Arab Republic of Egypt on June 24, 2012 with 51.73 % as the first elected president after the January 25 Revolution.

The military became one of the most important factors in Egyptian politics after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. Nasser appointed members of the officer corps to senior positions in the bureaucracy and public sector to help implement his social revolution. But in the later years of the Nasser regime, fewer military figures occupied high government posts. Even fewer held posts during the Sadat and Mubarak regimes. Nevertheless, senior generals on active service continued to hold the key positions in agencies responsible for national security--the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior--as of early 1990.

Since the 1952 Revolution, three presidents had major confrontations with the army chiefs. In each one of these confrontations, the president won the day. In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel-Nasser appointed his friend, Abdel-Hakim Amer, as general commander of the Armed Forces, a measure he took presumably to protect the revolution. Gradually, Amer began to expand his power base in the army and outside it, partly due to his winning personality and partly because of the generous perks he secured for the servicemen. This remained the case until the 1967 defeat, when it became clear that a major shift in army command was needed. For a while, a standoff emerged, with Amer fortifying himself in his villa and reportedly planning a coup. Within days, Nasser ordered Amer arrested and purged the army of his supporters. The president won the conflict.

After the June 1967 War, which tarnished the reputation of the military leadership, Nasser purged many officers from government. Sadat further reduced the military's influence in government by removing strong military figures who were liable to challenge his policies and by insisting on greater professionalism in the event of renewed conflict with Israel. He appointed fewer active or retired officers to high positions, although he named air force commander Husni Mubarak as vice president. Sadat was careful, however, to protect the career interests of professional soldiers and to provide for the material requirements of the military. Although the size of the armed forces had decreased after peace with Israel, the officer complement remained intact. Egypt's expanding relationship with the United States after 1974 assured a continued supply of modern weapons.

The performance of the army during the October 1973 War helped restore the military's prestige and served to justify Sadat's emphasis on professionalism instead of involvement in civilian politics. The military leadership's views continued to have an important influence on the formulation of defense and national security policies. Opposition politicians, who had become more vocal during the Mubarak regime, insisted upon open debate on defense strategy, the privileges of the officer corps, and the share of national resources allocated to defense.

The armed forces played a role in maintaining domestic stability, although only under the most compelling circumstances had they actually been called upon in a domestic crisis. These occasions included the violent 1977 food riots and an uprising of conscripts of the Central Security Forces in Cairo (Al Qahirah) and other cities in 1986. The military leadership noted pointedly that the army units returned to their barracks as soon as both emergencies had ended. The efficiency and professionalism the armed forces demonstrated during these emergencies reinforced the public's perception that the army was the ultimate safeguard against militant Islamists or others who might threaten civil authority.

Mubarak's firm control over the military enabled him to restrict the influence of the officer corps over political decision making. His encouragement of democratizing tendencies in the political system led to previously unexpressed public criticism of the military's privileges and its demands on the economy. Much of the debate over the military's role during the Mubarak regime centered on Abu Ghazala, Mubarak's close collaborator, who was named minister of defense before Sadat's death in 1981 and was promoted to field marshal and deputy prime minister in 1982. Under Abu Ghazala, the military's growing involvement in Egypt's industrial, military, and agricultural sectors offset the military's diminishing role in politics. With substantial economic resources and the means to earn revenues independently of the budget, the defense sector was able to maintain a high degree of financial autonomy. Despite the government's fiscal austerity, Abu Ghazala was able to purchase expensive modern weaponry during the 1980s and to undertake vast housing projects to improve the living conditions of both officers and enlisted personnel. Widely regarded as the natural successor to Mubarak as president, Abu Ghazala was careful not to appear to be a political rival to Mubarak or to undercut the president's authority. He nevertheless spoke out on nonmilitary matters, apparently with Mubarak's consent, and developed a network of contacts with civilian business leaders.

In April 1989, Mubarak abruptly appointed General Yusuf Sabri Abu Talib as minister of defense and commander in chief and assigned Abu Ghazala the vague position of assistant to the president. Most observers believed that Abu Ghazala had been dismissed for corrupt financial dealings as well as for a scandal over smuggling arms from the United States; others believed that Mubarak considered him too influential. One effect of Mubarak's dramatic action, however, was to strengthen civilian primacy over the military. Abu Ghazala's successor, Abu Talib, had earned a reputation as an efficient manager in his previous post as governor of Cairo. When Abu Talib took up his new post, he indicated that he intended to introduce greater financial accountability into defense programs and to limit the military's involvement in economic activities that were not directly related to defense and that competed with the private sector. Abu Talib was also charged with bringing corruption in the armed forces under control.

The military reached its peak of influence in the late 1980's before the ouster of the recently deceased former Defense Minister Abu Ghazalah, who was dismissed because of his growing political popularity. He asserted that since 1989, the MOD's influence in Egyptian society has been gradually waning, and the privileged social position of its elite members has been in decline as society's respect for the military fades. By 2008 military salaries had fallen far below what is available in the private sector, and that a military career is no longer an attractive option for ambitious young people who aspire to join the new business elite instead.

Before the 1967 war, military officers were "spoiled," and constituted a social elite. Following the military's poor performance in the 1967 war, officers began a descent out of the upper ranks of society that accelerated after Abu Ghazalah's ouster in 1989. Since Abu Ghazalah, the regime has not allowed any charismatic figures to reach the senior ranks. Defense Minister Tantawi looks like a bureaucrat. The mid-level officer corps is generally disgruntled, and one can hear mid-level officers at MOD clubs around Cairo openly expressing disdain for Tantawi. These officers refer to Tantawi as "Mubarak's poodle," he said, and complain that "this incompetent Defense Minister" who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is "running the military into the ground."

A culture of blind obedience pervades the MOD where the sole criteria for promotion is loyalty, and that the MOD leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being "too competent" and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime.

Military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries. Military companies built the modern road to the Ain Souknah Red Sea resorts 90 minutes from Cairo and Cairo University's new annex. There are large amounts of land owned by the military in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea coast. Such property is a "fringe benefit" in exchange for the military ensuring regime stability and security. The military's role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets. Most analysts agree that the military views the GOE's privatization efforts as a threat to its economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms. Privatization has forced military-owned companies to improve the quality of their work, specifically in the hotel industry, to compete with private firms and attract critical foreign investment.

There is a concerted effort from the top of the regime to penetrate the civilian bureaucracy with retired senior military officers. Many retired officers fill top civilian jobs, such as governors, and chief of staff positions and other senior slots at the Information, Transportation and Education ministries.

The military helps to ensure regime stability and operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a "quasi-commercial" enterprise itself. While there are economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial. The military's loss of some prestige is partly due to the disappearance of an imminent, external military threat following the 1979 Camp David Accords.

The regime, aware of the critical role the MOD can play in presidential succession, may well be trying to co-opt the military through patronage into accepting Gamal's path to the presidency. Senior military officers would support Gamal if Mubarak resigned and installed him in the presidency, as it is difficult to imagine opposition from these officers who depend on the president and defense minister for their jobs and material perks. In a messier succession scenario, however, it becomes more difficult to predict the military's actions. While mid-level officers do not necessarily share their superiors' fealty to the regime, the military's built-in firewalls and communication breaks make it unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2014 19:44:53 ZULU