If Mubarak Leaves: The Role of the Egyptian Military

  • photo courtesy of Jonathan Rashad www.flickr.com/photos/32623295@N02/7122415803
    Feb 10, 2011

    It is tempting to rush to judgment about the role the Egyptian military will play if Mubarak really does leave. The truth is that even the senior military now at the top of the power structure under Mubarak almost certainly have no clear idea of what happens next, and it will be days before anyone know how well the transition will function, who goes and who stays, and how stable the result really is.

    There are, however, some broad things than can be said about the Egyptian military. There is no ONE military, and a careful distinction needs to be made between the real military that total around 470,000 personnel, and are under the Ministry of Defense. Others in uniform include the 325,000 personnel in the Central Security Services and 60,000 in National Guard, that are under the Ministry of the Interior. These latter forces are the primary source of the oppression documented in the annual US State Department human rights report, and of the growing authoritarianism and abuses that Egyptians are now protesting.

    While the Egyptian military may well be the ultimate power brokers in a time of major political upheaval, they also are a military force and not-- as is the case in Algeria -- the de facto government. They do not dominate the economy or civil government, and most -- like other Egyptians -- have been subject to surveillance by Egypt's oppressive intelligence services. These services themselves present real question about Egypt's future power structure.

    The key element include the Mukhabarat al-Aama Al-Mukhabarat al-'Ammah (General Intelligence and Security Service); Mukhabarat el-Khabeya (Military Intelligence Service); Mubahath el-Dawla; (General Directorate of State Security Investigations) and Jihaz Amn al Daoula (State Security Service). They also are as divided as the military security services. General Intelligence reports to  the presidency; Military Intelligence to the Ministry of Defense; and the General Directorate for State Security Investigations is directly controlled by the Minister of Interior.

    More broadly, the Egyptian military  are not an isolated elite. They are a citizen army. Most actual soldiers are conscript and many junior officers are graduates who serve short tours or who join the military because it is the only job available. Mid level officers are usually career professional that are not part of the political side of the military. They have won considerable public respect and support over the years, but they also have lost status as a new class of businessmen and profiteers has acquired great wealth and the disparities income have growth. Most can now buy less by way of housing, education for the children, and the key elements of middle class living than in the past.

    Some do have every reason to be loyal to the status quo. There are significant numbers of retired senor military officers in Mubarak's inner circle who have been given sinecures and senior posts in the civil government and state industries, and who will want to continue to benefit from the regime. But the bulk of even senior the officers who leave don't enjoy these privileges. Moreover, the Egyptian military are military is stove-piped by branch and service, and most senior officers are in career paths that do not give them  have special access to to those who in Mubarak's close circle. Those who do become part of  Mubarak "loyalists"have acquired money and status, but further even senior officers are outside the circle, the more they rely on their military pay. and the more reason they have to be loyal to the nation and not the leader.  

    These distinctions also help explain why most of military retain so much popular respect. It is also important to understand that democracy is less important to most Egyptians than material benefits, jobs, decent education, effective government services, ending corruption and favoritism, and emphasizing the concept of justice in ways that provide security and honest police and courts. People aren't looking for a vote as much as they want to stop the economic, political and social injustice -- a search compounded by the fact Islam place so much emphasis on justice in every aspect of life and governance. The loudest and most Western voices in the square do not always speak for the Egyptian people, and practical compromise with around programs that provide justice and benefits may be easier for both the military and the people than some realize.

    At the same time, the military's top priority is to preserve the nation and maintain order and limit chaos or upheaval. They are far less likely to use torture or violence than the forces under Ministry of Interior as the entire command ethic of the professional military is the nation, not the leader, and military discipline puts real restraints on their actions. However, there also are real limits to their tolerance. They will not accept a breakdown of the government or economy. They will not accept paralysis or demonstrations that become violent, although they will not support a new wave of repression. Whomever is perceived as the most radically violent will tend to lose.

    The good news is that Egyptians as a whole tend to be pragmatic and not violent. (And they have the best political jokes around.) There are, however, serious legal barriers that need to be addressed, that will make life difficult for both the military and the people unless pragmatism takes priority over formal legal constraints. If Mubarak resigns, the new government have just 60 days to hold an election. Its formal leader will come from a corrupt parliament. There will still be open-ended emergency laws that allow opened-ended abuses.

    There also are senior military and ex-military in government and around Mubarak that occupy key posts and have a vested interest in blocking reform.  These include top military and ex-military: Lieutenant-General Omar Suleiman, the former head of the military intelligence service and now Vice-President; Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander and now Prime Minister , and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Defence Minister, the new deputy premier. they are all part of the Mubarak cadre. None are symbols of progress and change and all also have little real political experience, no knowledge of reform, and little experience in kind of effective civil governance and economic reform Egypt will now need.

     Moreover, both the military and all of Egypt's civil leaders  will suffer from the legacy of a political system where any opposition has been suppressed and sidelined for some 30 years. No political parties have the level of experience in cooperation and governance to rapidly participate in an election or show they can govern. The largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is led a by a gerontocracy and deeply divided between traditionalist and reformers, with extremists at the margins. The other parties are untried, although they have some bright intellectuals, and proven businessmen.

    This is why Obama administration is right in trying to find a transition that will provide the time needed to make the changes that will allow an effective political process to emerge, suspend the emergency law and create a structure where people can run and campaign.  It is seeking to persuade the regime may conclude t to accept a meaningful reform plan, in part because there is no way the regime can go back to the old system and a rigged September election could create a far worse crisis and a far higher prospect of lasting instability.

    Moreover, regime change is only part of the story -- for the military and the Egyptian people: No matter who emerges as the post-Mubarak leader, the economic and demographic pressures that have driven this uprising are going to remain for at least several years. This uprising takes place in the cauldron or world economic collapse. As in a disturbingly growing number of places throughout the world, in Egypt there are food spikes, fuel spikes, recession, a huge young population, weak job market, growing disparity of income.  The UN has declared major food shortages throughout the world, and the future is uncertain -- particularly given the drought in China. In Egypt, many  live pretty  to subsistence. If it were not for food aid and subsidies they wouldn't survive at all. For the rest, there are few new jobs here that offer the growing jobless population any employment, much less jobs with status.

    This may well mean that whatever new government comes to power has less than a 50 percent chance of surviving for two years. Patience is an Egyptian virtue, but the Egyptian people (and the military) are unlikely to tolerate failed politics, failed governance, and token progress. This, in turn, poses a long-term challenge for the US that goes far beyond who in the military has power in the first phase of change following Mubarak's departure.    Egypt controls a critical global trade route in the Suez Canal. The security of the Canal and its pipeline have a major impact on energy prices and the world economy. Egypt is  key to the Arab-Israeli peace and stability in the region, US military overflights and staging, and the struggle against extremism. In short, Egypt is a vital US national security interest -- in fact, a far more vital interest than Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Anthony H. Cordesman