Why the Egyptian Military Fears a Captains’ Revolt

The generals ruling in Cairo face a new challenge to their authority -- rising discontent within the army's middle ranks.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

CAIRO — Battered by a fractious security situation and embroiled in an escalating feud with the United States, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has found it easier to take power than to govern. Now, according to Western diplomatic and Egyptian military sources, it’s facing another challenge — maintaining control over an increasingly restive officer corps.

The SCAF is deeply concerned with the growing friction between itself and mid-ranking officers, a Western diplomat with intimate knowledge of the council’s internal workings told me.  As a result, the council has been increasingly reluctant to do anything that would risk causing its relationship with the Army to deteriorate further.

"[SCAF] is not giving out orders that could be disobeyed, not even potentially," the diplomat said. "It knows it cannot ask its soldiers to do something they don’t want to do. If it asks soldiers to, say, fire on protesters, SCAF knows it could end up with something like the Russian Revolution," the source added, in reference to an army mutiny that helped precipitate the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917.

There are signs that the SCAF has taken steps to make sure the Army isn’t put in a position where it has to bear the brunt of popular anger. For example, the much-maligned Interior Ministry’s police forces were deployed during the clashes in Cairo and elsewhere following the Port Said soccer riot. This stood in contrast to previous crackdowns, such as the now infamous "blue bra" attack in December on a female protester, when Army personnel took the lead.

Although the Army has stayed out of more recent street clashes, it remains the ultimate guarantor of the SCAF’s power. It is overseeing security at polling stations for the ongoing Shura Council elections, for example, and deployed on the streets ahead of a planned general strike. Last weekend’s walk-out went off without incident, saving the Army from the awkward decision of how aggressively to crack down on protesters.

One Army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said that there was growing disquiet among his colleagues, who feel that the Army is being manipulated to suit the SCAF’s political ambitions.

"It is totally crazy that we are getting asked to keep law and order in the country. This is the job of the police, not the Army," he said. "But there are certain things they know they cannot make us do."

The military has already endured dozens of desertions since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, predominantly among its officer class. According to Western diplomatic sources, the SCAF has expedited dozens of promotions for younger officers in a bid to keep them on board with its proclaimed goal of handing over power to a civilian government after the presidential election, which was recently moved up to May.

It is a poorly guarded secret that officers have been receiving extra pay since protests began, but the remuneration handed out by the SCAF may be even larger than previously thought. Another Western diplomat said that he had seen evidence of regular payments of up to $11,600 to officers holding the rank of colonel and higher. A previous report by an Egyptian army insider, in which he alleges that reserve officer salaries doubled during the protests in January and February, supports this account.

It is the officer class, the diplomat said, that the SCAF is most concerned with appeasing.

"Many of these are officers, often trained in the United States, that come back to Egypt and cannot figure out why the military and the country is still being run by military people," the diplomat said. "Very senior officials do not want to risk a split, and infantry members mostly follow orders, but the officers are the ones to watch."

In the meantime, the SCAF is increasingly at risk of losing Egypt’s primary international financier. The prosecution of 16 Americans who work for several non-governmental organizations has badly frayed ties with the United States, and several prominent U.S. senators have already said that the $1.3 billion of annual U.S. military assistance should be withheld as a result. But Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School who has written extensively on Egypt’s military establishment, said that the SCAF may be trying to escalate tensions with the United States to better maintain order within its own ranks.

"The degree of escalation suggests the SCAF wanted to provoke a confrontation," Springborg said. "Part of the SCAF’s calculation is that many of its officers are not happy and it is therefore frightened of a coup."

"By provoking the U.S., [SCAF leader Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi is seen as standing up to them, so any attempt of officers acting against him could be painted as a move by the U.S.," Springborg added. "He’s frightened to death, and this is a preemptive move to make less senior military personnel less keen to move against him."

As the SCAF prepares to hand over formal power to civilian rule, some officers have been critical of Egypt’s rulers for not doing enough to preserve the military’s prerogatives in the future government. Ahead of the anniversary of Egypt’s Jan. 25 uprising, for example, the SCAF announced a series of measures designed to assuage popular anger — officially ending the Emergency Law, which had prevailed since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and ordering the release of thousands of civilians held in military jails.

"There are some good people [in the SCAF] but most of them don’t understand what it is they are doing," the Egyptian Army officer said. "They panic and they give into protesters’ demands. Giving in every time people gather in Tahrir Square is not how democracy works."

As unrest foments within the ranks, so too does corruption in the armed forces, which reportedly controls up to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy. The Western diplomat said that graft has actually risen since Mubarak’s ousting, as the military took the reins of the state.

"It has increased, because the older heads that remain know they can get more things past the younger officers," the diplomat said.

Faced with a population chafing under military rule, an angry superpower ally, and a restive officer corps, it’s not easy being an Egyptian general these days. As a result, the SCAF’s strategy seems to be to hand power over to a civilian government that will preserve its privileges — and pray that everything doesn’t come crashing down before then.

"SCAF is already treading on eggshells when it gives its orders," the diplomat said. "It cannot keep this up for too much longer."

Patrick Galey is a journalist based in Cairo. He writes for The Telegraph in London and tweets @patrickgaley.