The truth about the Egyptian military

With news of the Tahrir protesters killed by the army yesterday as they tried to clear the square, it is time for a more frank conversation about the role of the military in Egyptian society.  During the eighteen days of demonstrations that forced Mubarak to step down, almost every article noted that Egyptians revere their military.  Certainly, there was no shortage of Egyptian protesters prepared to make just such a declaration, in part because the military was a distant and professional force compared to the near and thuggish police, with whom Egyptians are obliged to interact on a more frequent basis.  But appealing to the military’s honor — especially its much-vaunted code never to fire on a fellow Egyptian — had a tactical advantage as well: it shamed the military into remaining neutral during the revolution rather than acting to prop up the regime.  This worked, but now the military is in direct control of the country and the people’s true and more nuanced feelings about them are coming to the surface.

I can attest that in the three years I lived in Cairo, when demonstrations on anything like the scale of those in Tahrir Square were inconceivable, the military was talked about without much reverence.  It was understood to have lost most of its wars.  The humiliation of the 1967 war was only partially redeemed by a brief flash of brilliance in the 1973 war, which was claimed as a victory though Egypt’s early gains on the battlefield were reversed.  The Mubarak regime was, in origin, a military state — Mubarak himself having come out of the air force — but as internal enemies (mainly, the Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad) replaced external enemies (Israel) as the principal threats to the regime there had been a creeping internal coup d’état by the security services that turned the country into something more like a police state.  Still, the military was a privileged institution with its own parallel network of first-rate hospitals, extensive business interests, and access to sweetheart land deals (plus, as everyone in Egypt knows and a piece in the New York Times makes clear, a substantial cut of the annual $1.3bn in American aid) which gives it a huge stake in continuing the status quo of the Mubarak years, albeit now without Mubarak.

This is the peril of this moment: the military is the only institution with a substantial interest in the old system that has a popularly accepted role in shaping the new system.  Few doubt that the military council now in charge is sincere in wanting to usher in civilian rule; indeed, if there is a concern it is that the military is impatient to do so, working with any civil groups willing to protect its interests.  So, the true question is how extensive will that civilian rule be and will it come at the cost of continuing the privileges granted the military by Mubarak.

The military may have honor, but they have their personal and institutional interests too.


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