The mind of Egypt’s military

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been ruling Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. But the SCAF’s erratic decision-making process and its complete lack of transparency has left nearly everyone confused about its ultimate intentions. Many think that it aims to re-impose de facto military rule, and rumors swirl about its ...


The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been ruling Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. But the SCAF’s erratic decision-making process and its complete lack of transparency has left nearly everyone confused about its ultimate intentions. Many think that it aims to re-impose de facto military rule, and rumors swirl about its counter-revolutionary schemes and alleged secret deals. Activists routinely accuse the SCAF of blocking systemic change and continuing the repressive rule of the former regime.

My recent discussions with individuals close to the military leadership left me with a more complex picture of a military establishment uncomfortable with its public role, unsettled by continued protest, and hampered by an authoritarian mindset that continues to guide its thinking.  The key to understanding the SCAF is that it has used its expanded power with a single-minded determination to restore the country to what it perceives to be stability and return it to normalcy. Without a clear roadmap for transition, the council has been reactive and inconsistent, ensuring continuation of the very activity it has sought to bring to an end — namely, public agitation and demonstration. 

Critics of the SCAF attribute to it an endless capacity for devious political machinations. In fact, the SCAF’s ad hoc management of the transition demonstrates that its actions are most often a response to popular political pressure and not reflective of a broader vision. The SCAF’s resistance to activist demands is not reflective of an ideological counter-revolution to preserve the former regime but represents a fundamental aversion to thoroughgoing, and potentially destabilizing, reform. 

The SCAF’s relationship with the Ministry of Interior and the issue of security sector reform is the clearest embodiment of this approach. The military leadership had sought to avoid major decisions on the Interior Ministry due to its desire to cede policing responsibilities and pre-occupation with the potential for disruptive and subversive retaliatory actions by those purged from the ranks.

The instances when public protests have effected change, despite falling short of protester expectations, have also been a function of SCAF fear of public disorder. This is particularly so when protesters have demonstrated a united front and a consensus with respect to demands, increasing pressure on the SCAF and decreasing the likelihood of negative blowback. These cases have been understood by the SCAF to be broadly reflective of informed opinion. The protest movement’s success in this regard is dependent upon strength in numbers and resilience, as isolated and small protests have not been accorded any level of respect and have been repressed actively and, at times, with force.

This fear also explains the SCAF’s unpopular resort to military trials. Beleaguered by the continued tumult and wary of unempowered and weak civilian leaders, the SCAF has prioritized law and order and has been most draconian in discharging its newfound policing duties, resorting promiscuously to the use of military justice for civilian detainees. The SCAF has also come to display the very same sense of its own indispensability typified by the Mubarak regime, and has internalized criticism of its role as an attack on the nation’s unity and security.

The SCAF was ill-prepared to assume its role when the Mubarak government was toppled. While the SCAF has consistently sought to portray itself as a participant in and supporter of the country’s revolution, it has operated with many of the same limitations that handicapped the former regime and left it out of touch with Egyptian society. While the Egyptian military had once dominated the government in the wake of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s Free Officers’ Movement, its role in civilian governance and Egyptian politics has receded in recent decades. What had once been an outright military state evolved in ways that privileged other competing actors, including, most significantly, the Ministry of Interior and the new business elite.

This diminution of political power and the lack of military participation in active repression was a critical factor in allowing the military to untether its future from that of the Mubarak regime. But the military’s retreat from political life also meant that the country’s senior military leaders were wholly unfamiliar with the mechanics of governance. This inexperience and uncertainty further entrenched crisis management as the military’s mindset and has come to define its stewardship of the transition.

While its institutional identity allowed it to separate its fate from that of the sitting government it supported, the armed forces were a part of the standing order and had never intimated its discontent with the state of the country. With stability its primary touchstone and a keen sense of its popular reputation, the military was not inclined to intervene on either side to tilt the balance of power during the 18-day uprising that toppled the government. When horsemen and thugs on camels descended on the protesters of Tahrir Square on February 2, the military was a neutral bystander, waiting for events on the ground to clarify which side would emerge from the battles raging in Egypt’s streets. At every juncture, the SCAF has done the bare minimum necessary to restore public order, but almost every successive step or concession has been accomplished through direct political pressure and popular protest. In the few instances when the SCAF has sought to establish a framework for transition, such as its management of the March constitutional referendum, its approach has been haphazard and riddled with indecision.

In this pursuit of stability, the SCAF has also constantly been guided by the understandings and biases that shaped government policy during the Mubarak era. This has manifested itself primarily in the council’s understanding of mass mobilization and protests, which centered tightly on the Muslim Brotherhood’s perceived role — despite what had transpired during the popular uprising and the broad-based nature of participation in the uprising. As the most coherent opposition force during the Mubarak era, the SCAF assumed that massive public protests could only be a function of Brotherhood organizational capacity.

This perception was the main driver behind the SCAF’s early moves to co-opt the Brotherhood and to ensure its support for a speedy transition process. This is a priority for the SCAF, which is adamant on stepping back from a front-line position of governance, albeit with its institutional role and prerogatives firmly intact. These early moves were welcomed by the Brotherhood, which had confidence in its organization and networks, believing that a speedy transition would benefit its electoral performance. The Brotherhood also realized that frontal confrontation with a military establishment that enjoyed unparalleled popular sympathy would alienate uncommitted voters and distract from electoral preparations. The decision to eschew criticism of the military was also informed by the Brotherhood’s deep-seated fear of military retrenchment and a sense that friction at this stage would discourage the military leadership from relinquishing power. Instead, they have displayed a keen, and at times obsequious, desire to cultivate the confidence of the SCAF in its ability to calm the current environment and play a positive role in restoring stability.    

This short-term convergence of interests was seen by many observers as an outright agreement between the Islamists and the military. Instead, the Brotherhood’s unified and clear lines of leadership allowed the group to establish reliable channels of communication with the military. In turn, the military respected the discipline and organizational capacity of the Brotherhood and was more confident in its ability to enforce discipline upon membership, aiding the process of orderly transition.  

The Brotherhood presented a disciplined front standing in stark contrast to the more chaotic and fragmented nature of the emerging politics of the country’s non-Islamist opposition. For these groups, the leaderless aspects of the uprising, which had created resilience within the protest movement, undermined their position with respect to the SCAF during transition and amplified the SCAF’s predisposition regarding the role of the Islamists in controlling the dynamics of protest. The military’s analytical failing was further reinforced by the highly hierarchical nature of Egyptian society. Despite incessant praise for the youth of the revolution (shabab al-thawra), the reference was often overlaid with a hint of patronization that underestimated their actual and critical role during the Egyptian uprising.

This understanding was eventually overtaken by events as Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition was able to sustain its protest movement and organize significant displays of public strength without Islamist participation. The protests led to a reappraisal by the SCAF and a series of concessions that had not been previously contemplated, including the overhaul of the transitional government, the start of security sector reform, and acquiescence to the trial of the deposed president.

The persistence of the protest movement and the ingrained suspicion of many of the youth activists toward military authority have also fueled a deep-seated belief among some of the members of the SCAF that outside forces must be encouraging the emerging divide between these groups and the SCAF. The harsh rhetoric targeting the council and its longtime leader, Minister of Defense Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, has shocked the SCAF and has been interpreted as an effort to sow dissension and undermine national unity. The fundamental inability to conceive of organic, non-Islamist political mobilization remains, clouding current understandings of the dynamic political scene. While to a degree cynicism can be ascribed to some of the SCAF’s recent statements regarding foreign interference, it would be a mistake to view these pronouncements as simply political play-acting and rhetorical excess.

The haphazard and at times authoritarian manner by which the SCAF has ruled has also led to speculation that the military is positioning itself for a reassertion of military rule. Recent discussions of far-reaching constitutional arrangements enumerating specific powers for the military have further reinforced this suspicion. However, several individuals close to the SCAF maintain that this position, often referred to as the Turkish model, is not representative of a consensus among the military leaders. These individuals also indicated that the two key members of the council, Tantawi and Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces, Lt. Gen. Sami ‘Anan, have not thrown their weight behind this proposition. 

While suggestions for a Turkish model likely suggest divisions among the country’s military elite, they are as reflective of nascent divisions among Egypt’s non-Islamist political forces, some of whom have now come to view Islamism as a greater threat than military encroachment on civilian authority.  

It is certainly true that the military is keen to protect its institutional interests, and its power and influence have been expanded by the trajectory of recent events. However, it is the military establishment’s unrivalled credibility with Egyptian society that remains the ultimate buffer between it and unfettered civilian oversight. In the near-term there is no political force in Egyptian society that could credibly challenge the military or its prerogatives. This should not be seen as a failure of the Egyptian uprising — the process for bringing the military under untrammeled civilian control will take years and will parallel the maturation of the political system.

Paradoxically, the Egyptian military leadership’s newfound position of strength has exposed its vulnerabilities by forcing it into an unfamiliar role of active governance and, hence, controversy. Limited by its governing mindset, the SCAF has been slow to adjust to new realities and loathe to undertake structural reforms that could create societal tensions and inhibit its return to the barracks. Ultimately, the Egyptian military will do as little as possible in the way of actual reform, in the hopes of avoiding what it deems to be unnecessary conflict. Coupled with its refusal to cede power to Egypt’s transitional civilian leadership at this critical juncture, the military’s ultimate goal remains a stable environment to allow for an eventual, prompt transition. While this suggests a superficial understanding of democratic culture and the norms of constitutionalism, based on its track record to date, inaction by the SCAF might in the short-term be far preferable to a more active military role in determining the country’s future.  

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. His article on the use of public order in Egyptian law will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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