The rapture on demonstrators’ faces was eloquent last Friday, as sand-colored Egyptian military helicopters flew overhead, dipping below the level of the buildings that ring Tahrir Square. The crush of people would come to a standstill, thousands of arms reaching skyward, applauding. Thousands of heads would tilt back, expressions of abandon transfiguring them. The scene was almost surreal, taking place as it did two years after many of these same demonstrators, filling this same square, overthrew what the world understood to be a military-backed autocracy.
The crowd had to know that flocking to Tahrir in response to Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s call for a “mandate” to “take the necessary measures to deal with this violence and terrorism” would lead directly to the mass killings, twenty-four hours later, of other Egyptians—supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, who were blockading a bridge across town.
“I didn’t think it would happen so soon,” said one young man, with chiseled features that might have been lifted off a Luxor bas-relief, who had joined last Friday’s Tahrir Square demonstration. “I thought the crackdown would come after the end of Ramadan [expected August 7]. The military must have had information that the Muslim Brotherhood was planning something,” he reasoned. For him, the only surprise was the timing. “We have to finish them. We can’t live together in Egypt,” he insisted. This attitude, shared by many who support Morsi’s removal, seemed to verge on the genocidal.
“There’s a very passionate flirtation going on now between the people in the street and the military,” analyzed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif on July 3, the day of Morsi’s ouster. Citing a few “important voices that remind people that the military for a year killed us in the streets,” Soueif acknowledged the incongruity.
Making any sense of this startling about-face—with much of the Egyptian population now embracing the very military it seemed bent on ejecting from power during the 2011 revolution—may require a reappraisal of those events.
The 2011 Protesters Were not Revolting Against the Military
The assertion may seem counterintuitive, given that former president Hosni Mubarak emerged from military ranks. Yet the revolutionaries were enraged not at Mubarak’s army but at a tight network of high-rolling capitalists who were seen to have hijacked the Egyptian government (military included), rewriting the laws, awarding themselves privileged access to land and other public resources, and employing police repression, all for personal gain.
“It was a clique of big businessmen, close to the Mubarak family and the ruling party,” says Mohamed el-Shewy of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “They used their influence in parliament to issue laws in their favor,” especially regarding public tenders and land allocations. El-Shewy’s colleague Osama Diab evokes the “replacement of one ruling class by another.” The new class, he says, “ran the country—socially, economically, and in terms of the dominant discourse. Everything looked like them, modern, younger, Westernized.”
Randa el-Zoghbi and her colleagues at the Center for International Private Enterprise refer to a “new guard” surrounding Mubarak’s son Gamal that created “parallel structures” within key government ministries. “They didn’t touch the positions or salaries of the old bureaucrats, they just created a new structure alongside them”—a structure at the clique’s orders, according to many. “Their decisions were subject to no accountability,” says el-Zoghbi.
Egyptians connect the runaway capitalism espoused by this clique—and the staggering fortunes its members amassed—with a wave of privatizations that intensified in the mid-1990s, throwing hundreds of thousands of employees out of work. Workers from every sector were hit, from the bank employee whose typing skills prompted her colleagues to draft her to type protest leaflets to workers in cement or textile factories to the employee of a state-owned manufacturer of kitchen appliances who was forced into early retirement. “Some Egyptians bought the factory without having to bid on it, and they sold it to a foreign company within a year,” he recounted with a wry shrug. “They did it to make money off the sale, not to invest in modernizing anything.”
“The buyers did not invest in the factories,” agrees Kamal Abbas, coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services. “Society did not gain anything, and the profits were sent overseas.”
And while the acute lack of transparency of the privatization process makes proof difficult, the perception of most Egyptians is that these sales of public enterprises—for prices below the value of the land they were built on, goes the refrain—unfairly benefitted the crony-capitalist clique around Gamal Mubarak. “They kept it amongst themselves,” says Wael El Zoghbi, the director of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Egyptian Business Development Association. “There was no access to information.” Business reporter Mohammad Gad believes “most sales were to the inner circle.” A retired municipal government official refers to this inner circle as the “money-grubbers.” “The people used to sing a wedding song,” he recalls, beginning a quiet chant: “‘Marriage, marriage! The state and capital, marriage, marriage!’”
“This,” according to Judge Yussef Auf, “was one of the major reasons for the revolution.”
In other words, the high unemployment that many Western analysts blamed for the 2011 overthrow of the Mubarak regime was not seen by Egyptians as a structural, macroeconomic phenomenon resulting from poor economic policies. It was seen as the direct product of corrupt practices on the part of a clique of crony capitalists that had captured the main levers of the Egyptian state and was using them to advance its private agenda.
The Egyptian military, too, has a significant portion of the economy in its grip, and it benefits from preferential access to public markets, such as the provision of computers and food-catering to ministries, or road-building and other infrastructure projects. And the military, too—at least its top ranks—has amassed great wealth and luxury, enjoying free or subsidized access to swank hotels or manicured clubs segregated by branch.
And yet somehow those forms of corruption do not compare, for most Egyptians, with the crony-capitalist excesses. Officers “were—visibly at least—not that much richer than everyone else,” says Diab of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Even today, I don’t think the senior officers are as rich as a Naguib Sawiris, for example, or Gamal Mubarak. They might have three villas and two cars. Gamal’s assets were ridiculous. He was found to have a stake in forty or fifty companies, something like seventy farms, and who knows how many bank accounts.”
Most importantly, the military is seen by many Egyptians to be adding enough value to the nation for its corruption to be forgiven. “The army,” in the view of the young demonstrator, “is for the country.”
Democracy—Per Se—Was Not the Aim of the 2011 Revolution
Protesters, on the whole, were not demanding the vote for the sake of the vote. They were demanding the deliverables that are supposed to result from democracy. Giant mug shots of top officials behind bars on display in Tahrir Square in 2011 were expressing a demand that the perpetrators of the heist of public resources be subject to repercussions. The revolutionaries called for the return of stolen or squandered public assets; an end to the pervasive corruption, which cascaded down from the top of the system to include daily shakedowns by auxiliary police, institutionalized graft in public tenders at all levels of government, and ad hoc fees demanded even by teachers and doctors.
The protesters’ failure to develop concrete propositions or a clear democratic platform—often decried by Western analysts—and their notable lack of constitutional sophistication in comparison to their counterparts from French-speaking North Africa may reflect a degree of disinterest regarding the precise mechanism that would deliver the improved political morality and social justice they were demanding.
The Morsi Government Was Seen to Be Merely Substituting Muslim Brotherhood Networks for Those of Gamal Mubarak
A democratic process was launched, and its fruits reaped by the Muslim Brotherhood—a latecomer to the revolution. Initially, Morsi and his government seemed to be courting the military, making a series of decisions that favored its interests, such as retaining the secrecy of the military budget or deeding key industrial and real estate assets to military enterprises.
Other moves—such as rushing a contested constitution through a referendum process, appointing party members widely viewed as lacking requisite qualifications to key administrative positions including governorates, failing to launch administrative reform that would put an end to corrupt practices, expanding the legality of no-bid public tenders—convinced many Egyptians that the Muslim Brotherhood had no intention of enacting the type of systemic corrections the revolutionaries had demanded. Rather, it seemed, Brotherhood officials hoped merely to capture for themselves the benefits enjoyed by the money-grubbing Mubarak clique.
And so, ignoring the excesses perpetrated under the eighteen-month rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), ignoring the authoritarian demeanor of the military itself, a broad swathe of Egyptians turned to the army to save them from their predicament.
That army, moreover, has made some strides in the past year. Gone are the faceless, aged SCAF members, who would not deign even to speak directly to the population. A young and virile General el-Sisi makes frequent public declarations. His picture can be seen next to that of nationalist hero Gamal Abdel Nasser on glossy posters all over town. Great billboards, showing a soldier with a young child in his arms or accepting a girl’s gift of a flower, project the army in the role of people’s protector. Promotional videos blare from shops featuring young children in uniform undergoing a mock commando training exercise.
“The SCAF of today is different from [Field Marshall Muhammad Hussein] Tantawi’s SCAF,” argues Oberlin professor and military expert Zaineb Abul-Magd. “They are not brutal and stupid.”
“We are the backbone of this country,” one major general summed up. “We are the glue that holds it together.”
The Military Is Neither as Powerful nor as Competent as It Is Cracked Up to Be
Egyptians and international observers alike focus on the significant political and economic power the military has amassed over the years, citing figures as high as 40 percent of the Egyptian economy allegedly under military control. They point to a large number of retired officers reportedly holding key operational positions in ministries, local government, and privatized companies. Even some opponents of the army’s penetration of the economy acknowledge a degree of competence that surpasses the abilities of the softened Mubarak-era state.
And yet, closer examination of just a few military activities is sufficient to reveal how thin this veneer may be.
The Arab Organization for Industrialization is a conglomerate originally founded by the militaries of Egypt and several Arab Gulf countries to jointly develop their defense industries. The other countries pulled out in the 1990s, leaving Egypt alone. The organization is run by a retired three-star general.
My visit to the plant that makes consumer electronics such as televisions and irons and electric kettles began with an interrogation worthy of the intelligence services of a Soviet-bloc country. After some minutes of questioning, the visibly suspicious interrogator—a civilian female from the research and development department named Aida Ahmed Fouad el-Sabban—scurried out of the room to consult with the factory’s CEO, and returned to announce his refusal to allow the visit to the factory floor, even though it had been arranged in advance.
The factory, it emerged, merely assembles low-grade Chinese components for products visibly below the standards of readily available Samsung or Sony alternatives. Its line of computers—discontinued since the revolution—was sold only to government ministries. Currently, the twelve-person research and development department is focused on electrical controllers for a prospective solar streetlight project, also aimed at government purchasers. The department, even according to el-Sabban, generates no innovation. Young engineers, hired right out of school, cycled through on their way to higher-paying jobs in the private sector, at least until the mid-2000s, according to another engineer. But, she added, “once they leave, they are not allowed to return.” So the company is sealed off from the dynamism of today’s information technology sector.
Military foodstuffs, considered of poor quality by consumers, also fail to command much of a market. At best, they enjoy preferential access to some public tenders, such as the ministry of youth and sports canteens.
As for the army’s core function, defense, it hardly bears mentioning. Apart from a brief successful foray into Libya in 1977, the Egyptian military has not seen action since the first Gulf War. And its track record in the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s was abysmal. Its ongoing affection for the outmoded M1A1 tank, and an associated emphasis on conventional warfare, reveals a resistance to adapt its security posture to an evolving threat environment that matches its imperviousness to industrial innovation.
In other words, the Egyptian military is something of an emperor wearing invisible new clothes.
Some in Both the Brotherhood and the Military Have an Interest in the Violence
“Martyrdom Project” read some posters at Muslim Brotherhood encampments around Cairo. Brotherhood activists describe a noticeable radicalization in their ranks over the past month of protest, and concede that some find a benefit in this development. Returning to the opposition, no longer responsible for outcomes, can be more comfortable than running a country in crisis, one seasoned activist admitted.
Incontrovertible victimhood, moreover—the spilling of blood as members and sympathizers are mowed down by the security services—may establish a historical landmark for a movement that seems currently out of good options. Such carnage may serve a future rallying function. And it may paper over the glaring mistakes, the rigidity and self-serving behavior, not to mention the apparent collusion with jihadis, that characterized the Morsi regime.
The Egyptian military, meanwhile, may be following a path taken by many of the region’s autocracies over the years: that of hollowing out the part of its opposition that is most reasonable and middle-of-the-road, so as to end up facing not an opposition, but an enemy against which military means are acceptable. The drumbeat of repression, together with the removal of senior Muslim Brotherhood figures from the scene, seems deliberately designed to push the movement to radicalize. The goal (achieved masterfully by the Algerian government in the 1990s) would be to present the people—and the international community—with a stark choice between authoritarianism and terrorism.
Egyptians, for now, seem to have convinced themselves that this is indeed the choice they are facing. And they have chosen the former. They have opted for Restoration.
At this phase of a revolutionary political transformation, such a development is not so uncommon. Cromwell’s republic in England was followed by a restoration of the Stuart dynasty, before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 reimposed democratic institutions. And after the excesses of their revolution, the French enthroned Napoleon as emperor, then restored their old royal dynasty—subject, this time, to constitutional constraints—before finally ushering in a second republic in 1848.
The mere fact of a “restoration” in Egypt does not in and of itself mean the process launched in January 2011 is aborted. If history is any judge, that verdict won’t be in for years, if not decades.
The analysis in this article is based on interviews and conversations with a spectrum of Egyptians in 2011 and in July 2013.