Egypt's Military Custodianship

Yezid Sayigh, Marina Ottaway January 18, 2012 Washington, D.C.
Nearly a year after the fall of Egypt's long-time dictator, the country’s military remains in control but has promised to transfer power by July.
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Almost one year after the fall of Mubarak, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains in control of the government but has promised to transfer power before July. To examine the latest developments in Egypt, the prospects for a democratic transfer of power, and the military’s evolving role, Carnegie hosted a discussion featuring the Carnegie Middle East Center’s Yezid Sayigh. Carnegie's Marina Ottaway moderated.

Transition to Civilian Rule

  • Terms of a Transition: Sayigh expressed confidence that the military will hand over power, stressing that the primary question is not whether they will hand over power but under what terms. 
  • Possible Scenarios: Sayigh outlined two possible scenarios for a future transition:

    • Military Custodianship: The military would maintain control of key powers such as control of the defense budget and U.S. foreign military assistance and intervene in civilian affairs or foreign policy when it deems necessary, as is the case in Turkey and Pakistan. This outcome is likely if the political parties strike a bad compromise with the military.  

    • Genuine Transition to Democracy: The military will hand over control to a civilian government without preserving its own prerogatives, while securing a ‘safe exit’ ensuring immunity from prosecution over its handling of street protests during the past year. In order for this to occur, the political parties must insist that the army be brought under complete civilian oversight, a message that Washington must also back unequivocally and consistently.

Characteristics of Egypt’s Military

  • Managing Transition: The Egyptian military has a long history as an autonomous, professional institution and a strong corporate identity, but has become resistant to change, Sayigh explained. The events of the past year have prompted the Egyptian military to seek to enshrine and perpetuate its autonomy from civilian control formally, either in the new constitution, which is scheduled to be drafted in spring 2012, or in a document of “supra-constitutional principles,” he added.
  • Conservative Instincts: The Egyptian military as an institution does not have a clear social or economic vision or master plan for the future political development of Egypt, Sayigh said.  Instead, it tends to fall back on its conservative instincts. Its senior commanders retain a residual attachment to the legacy of Nasser-era state provision of social welfare and job creation.
  • Horizontal Relationships: Sayigh stated that unlike Turkey, Pakistan, and a number of Latin American countries, where military rule included a relationship with key power holders in the judicial, business, and religious sectors, the Egyptian military subordinated itself to president Hosni Mubarak and has few established relationships with other major stakeholders. 
  • Bureaucracy:  At the same time, former officers are deeply embedded in Egypt’s civilian bureaucracy, from local government to state-owned enterprises, Sayigh said. Such relationships will have to be disentangled in order for a complete democratic transition to take place. 

Military’s Economic Interests

  • Formal Military Economy: Sayigh stated that while there is a formal military economy consisting of a number of factories, farms, clubs, and resorts that belong legally to the armed forces, the value and the turnover of this economy is probably modest.
  • The Military’s Further Economic Interests: Sayigh added that there are also military officers acting as directors or board members for many state-owned enterprises, and in various public works agencies. While this illustrates the extent of the military penetration of the civilian sector, such enterprises cannot be considered owned by the military, even if it is able to derive certain benefits or income from some of their activities.


About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


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