The Middle East Channel

Hard choices for Egypt’s military

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the 1952 Egyptian revolution, when the Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the last king of Egypt. That revolution, within 18 months, led to the institution of a new regime, dominated by the military establishment. In a couple of days, it will have been ...


Today marks the 60th anniversary of the 1952 Egyptian revolution, when the Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the last king of Egypt. That revolution, within 18 months, led to the institution of a new regime, dominated by the military establishment. In a couple of days, it will have been 18 months since the people of Egypt revolted against the inheritors of that regime, which still remains dominated by the military. That military establishment now has a choice to make, for itself and the future of Egypt. Should it remain in a privileged, guardian like position that prevails over civilian authority indefinitely, at least in particular areas? Or should it make preparations to engage in what would be a truly revolutionary change, and hand over the keys to power not just symbolically, but completely?

In the past 18 months, the military establishment, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has done well. It emerged from the uprising as the heroic institution that stood by the Egyptian people, rather than slaughter them when Egyptians revolted against one of its own, former President Hosni Mubarak. Its confidence rating, according to recurring polls has not dipped below 80 percent. The state media, the main source of information in the country, is still trusted and gives a glowing review of the military. Its opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the other anti-military rule activists, has been no match. As the SCAF handed over power to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, it enjoyed its safe exist from the limelight, and has now redeployed to where it has wanted to be — back to the good old days, away from public scrutiny and back to the barracks.

Well, not quite. While this, no doubt, is the story that the military might like to be the case, it’s somewhat more complicated and complex in reality. The SCAF has been able to outmaneuver a number of different forces, it’s true; but it’s enjoyed a substantial strategic advantage. For decades, the educational system in Egypt has promoted a view of the military that caused it to become nearly legendary in the public imagination. During the uprising, it sacrificed Mubarak, but only to stop further instability that might have wrought havoc upon itself — and the fear of continued instability (even chaos) certainly worked in the military’s favor. When the SCAF felt the course it was pursuing was not ultimately without its problems, it often back-tracked — and as the state media was always on standby to spin things in its favors, it seldom had to bear responsibility for what might have happened. Revolutionary disunity, public apathy to protests, influence over the public media narrative, and widespread fear of fawda (chaos) were the main assets of the SCAF — not its shrewdness. As the weeks and months go on, another asset will become very evident: the "deep state" (i.e., the huge swathes of the state bureaucracy that have no interest in change, as well as former stalwarts of the old regime) that still persists.

As for the handing over of power to Morsi: it is dubious that was planned. If anything, it appears to have been an embarrassment: the result of a major blunder by the SCAF. The presidential election placed the SCAF, perhaps for the first time, in a position where it could not stack the deck sufficiently to change course later. One couldn’t simply stuff all the ballot boxes in favor of a candidate. The best the deep state could do would be to choose a candidate, and use its considerable assets, both financial and otherwise, to support him — even without having established a formal agreement. Who was that "deep state candidate?"

Polls showed that most Egyptians were undecided over who they would vote for, only weeks before the election — but out of those who were decided, Amr Moussa was in the lead by far. He had genuine popularity based on his experience and name recognition, and while he was not a military man, his public discourse over 2011 and 2012 indicated he would not be particularly radical about restructuring the state’s relationship with the military or reforming the deep state: and hence, was not a threat. When Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former spy-chief and short-lived vice president, ran, many speculated the deep state mobilized to ensure a section of the population supported him — perhaps (although this again is speculation) as a dry run for mobilizing intensely later. When he was subsequently disqualified from the race by a court order on a technicality, presumably it was assumed that support base would transfer its vote to someone else — the deep state candidate, who, at that point, was widely considered to be Amr Moussa. Again, he wouldn’t necessarily be a formal ally of the SCAF, but he would be a safe pair of hands.

A few weeks before the vote, however, the deep state seems to have made a critical error. Reports indicate that the former National Democratic Party (NDP) infrastructure and networks were re-activated, and mobilized in support of not Amr Moussa, but Ahmed Shafiq: Mubark’s last prime minister, appointed at the height of the uprising, and dismissed as the result of wide-scale protests in Tahrir Square. He was not simply a safe pair of hands, such as Moussa: he was a part of the armed forces establishment, who had excellent relations with the state in general. Presumably, it must have been calculated that the Egyptian people were so exhausted by the revolution thus far, even Shafiq would be acceptable, provided the deep state mobilized sufficiently hard enough.

If so, that was a poor calculation. With state media giving Shafiq an easy ride, and the former NDP apparatus mobilizing in support of him, Shafiq came in second and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate, Mohamed Morsi, came in first. In the ensuing weeks, a series of political moves were made that cannot be assumed to be coincidental. Any attempt to rig the election, as in years gone by, could not win in post-Mubarak Egypt: civil society oversight, particularly from the well-organized MB machinery, made wide-scale rigging a non-option. If Shafiq were to win, it would have to be through the ballot box.

In another blunder, the deep state tried other types of extra-democratic means to ensure its privileges. Firstly, it allowed for the dismissal of the Islamist-dominated parliament. The timing of the dismissal (even if the dismissal had legal grounds) lends credence to the theory that this was done to ensure that if Morsi did win, he wouldn’t have a friendly parliament with which to work. But the existence of that parliament had given fuel to the pro-Shafiq argument that the president should be from a non-Islamist background in order to create balance. Without it, that argument failed to hold water. In the final days before the election, SCAF limited the powers of the president to be, in order to protect its interests by fiat: again, providing another argument against any candidate that was allied to the status quo pre-January 25.

In a showdown between the PM who was in office on the infamous "Day of the Camels" when extreme violence was perpetrated in Tahrir Square, and the MB candidate, many simply voted against Shafiq. It was a close vote in favor of Morsi, and it was an unnecessary one. No anti-Moussa vote would have been comparable to the anti-Shafiq vote — and he would have benefited from the Shafiq vote, the Sabahi vote, much of the Aboul Fotouh vote, and the anti-Ikhwan vote from which Shafiq benefited. The deep state seems to have mistakenly engineered a situation in which Shafiq lost, but Moussa would have almost definitely won. This was a singularly unnecessary miscalculation, as Moussa was hardly a bad choice for the deep state to back, and Egypt now has a president whose mandate is tenuous at best and short-lived at worst. But, hindsight is always 20-20.

Well, except for the Egyptian military. It’s not clear it has quite figured it out yet. Many date the birth of the deep state to the July 23, 1952, when King Farouk was overthrown. They are mistaken. King Farouk was first forced to abdicate: a year later, a republic replaced the monarchy, with General Muhammad Naguib as president. Many argue Naguib wanted the military to phase out its role and become subservient to a civilian apparatus, while his junior officer in the movement who overthrew the monarchy, disagreed. That junior officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his allies, managed to remove Naguib shortly thereafter and set in motion a military establishment that is still unanswerable to any civilian authority.

During the past 18 months, confidence in the military reached highs of over 90 percent. Nevertheless, it has also been steadily decreasing, with a low of 83 percent measured in April. That is still a high number, indicating SCAF’s secure position thus far in the public consciousness, but it is still a significant drop. It is unlikely to be coincidental that this deterioration would take place at the same time that the SCAF has been subject to far more public attention. Even though the SCAF has now moved out of the public eye, a post-Mubarak Egyptian public will not stop subjecting it to more scrutiny. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle. The military, in any case, still has some legislative as well as executive functions at the moment — so it will invite public scrutiny for some time to come. Majorities of Egyptians, according to several recent polls, do want the military out of politics, with only a minority (although a significant one) thinking it is a good thing for it to be involved. If more and more Egyptians perceive the Egyptian military to be overstepping its political role, its popularity may diminish even further.

The military now has a choice. It can delay history, and risk losing all its privileges and popularity over time as the result of civilian pressure — pressure, incidentally, which will far outlast this MB presidency, which owes its existence to the deep state’s error. Or it can accept the inevitable, and chart a gradual course where it comes out as still the heroic institution of Egypt: by assisting in the complete establishment of a fully functioning civil state. One in which no "guardian elite," military or otherwise, prevails over a system of democratic checks and balances, under a constitution that represents the will of all sectors of Egyptian society. General Naguib, just perhaps, got it right.

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region, and was previously at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University. He is currently writing a series of pieces on the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the January 25 revolutionaries, in the aftermath of the 2012 Egyptian presidential election. / @hahellyer.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Among other books, he is the author of Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans. Twitter: @hahellyer