The end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime marks a critical juncture in Egypt’s civil-military dynamic. In the breakdown of institutional order following the dictator's ousting on February 11, 2011 and the subsequent disappearance of the police, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reluctantly assumed power. The time frame for this arrangement (initially scheduled for six months) is currently unpredictable and may be prolonged. Faced with a possible surrender of its influence held under decades of authoritarian rule, the military is trying to strike a delicate balance. While not eager to impose indefinite military rule, the army seeks preservation of its political and economic privileges in the emerging system. The military was able to project a cohesive façade in the first months of the revolution, but as pressures mount from the civilian front in the lead-up to November 28’s legislative elections, the Egyptian military is slowly discovering it is no longer the agent of its own desires.
Under Mubarak, the military in Egypt was a key component of the regime—much more than its counterpart in Tunisia under Ben Ali. Though in recent decades the Egyptian president was technically autonomous from the army, the high command was often consulted on fundamental issues: for example, the privatization debates post-2004 or later with the question of Mubarak’s succession. And while not involved in day-to-day crackdowns (as the ministry of interior and its dreaded secret police) the armed forces operated as the regime’s last resort. Prior to 2011, the army responded to the president’s call on several occasions: it provided institutional support in the wake of an Islamist plot following the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat; it crushed a rebellion of Central Security Forces in Cairo in 1986; and it helped defeat Islamist insurrections in Upper Egypt in the 1990s. The military has since been charged with regularly trying civilians accused of terrorism in special military tribunals.
Egypt’s military also has substantial holdings within the national economy: it owns a number of for-profit enterprises (factories for the manufacture of cement, jeeps, washing machines; the bottling of water) as well as agricultural farms and large swaths of reclaimed desert land. These economic inroads have served as an importance source of patronage for the officer corps, and they reflect how successful the military has been in shielding itself from the effects of economic liberalization and the rapid decrease in state resources.
Even so, the army has paradoxically managed to maintain a popular image as national protector—an image capitalized on in the first months of the revolution. In the 18-day confrontation (January 25-February 11) between the Mubarak regime and the massive populist protest movement, the army was often ambiguously situated and only occasionally threatening: a feature later erased by the much-heralded slogan “the people and the army are one”—the Tahrir Square expression of confidence in the military meant to tip soldiers toward the protesters' side.
But the SCAF is in a difficult position as result of its multifaceted interests. It defines its current mission as “the restoration of stability”—a touchstone that plays on widespread fears of an uncertain future. But despite those uncertainties, decentralized popular movements continue to exert pressure, leaving the SCAF all too uncertain of its prerogatives—and fearful of entry into the uncharted civilian territory of politics. None of its current members were involved in the power games of the former autocracy (with exception of Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, who many perceive as having been an active participant in the Mubarak regime), but to preserve the status quo, the military is exercising close vigilance on rising civilian leaders. It resisted transferring power directly to a civilian transitional government, and later dictated the terms of the political handover—resulting in the hurried and very limited March 19 constitutional reform and the so-called “road map” for a transition to a civilian democratic rule: legislative elections, followed by constituent assembly elections, then presidential elections.
To do this, the SCAF initially curried the favor of the Muslim Brotherhood old guard, considered an organized and powerful opposition (and thus a reliable interlocutor in contrast to the “messy” popular movements of Tahrir square)—only to grow nervous about Islamist influences in government. As a result, the military tried (unsuccessfully) to push for a declaration of inviolable constitutional principles that would frame the transition to come. It has increasingly relied on contacts with local notables (sometimes former NDP) to identify actors it will be more comfortable with. To maintain this grip, the army eventually resorted to unpopular measures: reinstating emergency law; insisting on the three rounds of elections to the majlis al-sha‘ab (the lower house of parliament); preserving the “workers and farmers” quota for parliament; and issuing a controversial electoral law opening for gerrymandering.
This is a dead-end policy. Greater involvement in politics risks awakening political controversies within the army and undermining the relatively apolitical internal dynamic—a nightmare scenario for the SCAF, which has struggled to protect the military’s cohesiveness. The SCAF justifies often violent reactions to perceived threats to military cohesiveness on the shaky premise that “outside forces conspire against Egypt”—and directly undermining its unrivalled credibility as “protector of the January 25 Revolution.” The October 9 bloodbath of Coptic demonstrators illustrates best the failure of a SCAF-guided Egyptian state.
A new bargain will necessarily emerge between the military and the nascent political system—one much more complex than what the slogan “democratic control of the armed forces” might imply. It will depend critically on the SCAF’s organization of proper elections in 2011-2012: ones that differ starkly from the heavy violence and generalized fraud of previous terms. Furthermore, upcoming civilian leaders must consolidate the democratic transition, and lead to a changing (though still significant) role for the military. This so-called “Turkish model” would result in an enduring guardian role, but also risk heavy interference of military staff in politics (through the National Security Council, MGK, as in Turkey) with “dirty tricks”: threats, intimidation, and even coups d’état. Remarkably, the receding of the Turkish military incursion into politics has paralleled the deepening of Turkish democratization post 2005—a process that now seems distinctly plausible in a post-Mubarak, post-SCAF Egypt.
The ability of civilian leaders to limit the military’s influence is limited but not impossible. A few practical lessons emerge from historic precedents in Latin America in the 1980s: in transitions, the militaries are less moved by an appetite for power than by a desire to protect their corporate interests and pass judgment on “proper” civilian leadership (which it does based on an assessment of national security, its own institutional interests, and of its regard of civilian crisis management). That officers must resist appeals from their more ideological comrades is essential. Important members of the SCAF (such as Chief-of-Staff Sami Enan seem of this kind) and are especially enhanced by outside contact. Hundreds of Egyptian officers have been socialized in US military academies to accept the role of the military as a legalist corps in democratic settings. Such a model might be attractive for Egyptian officers in search of a new posture in this time of uncertainty.
Philippe Droz-Vincent is assistant professor of political science and teaches at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. His work currently focuses on political regimes, armies, and transitions from authoritarianism in the Middle East.