Tuesday, February 1, 2011
The Egyptian Army: The Unknown Factor
In attempting to convince Mubarak to leave the scene, Washington obviously wants to temper any further radicalization on the streets of Egypt and, above all, to ensure that the Egyptian Army remains unscathed. That would enable the generals to remain the power behind the scenes in the coming weeks and months—ready to step in, if necessary, to veto any attempt by Islamic fundamentalists to come to power—even by free and open elections.
But determining what the Egyptian Army will ultimately do requires weighing a host of factors.
The announcement, for instance, that the Egyptian Army would refuse to take up arms against the people played perfectly into Washington’s game plan. It undercut Mubarak and prevented him from attempting a bloody showdown that could have been disastrous. In fact, the Egyptian military made that same announcement in 1977 when they were called in to quell riots after President Sadat announced cuts in basic food subsidies. The Army refused to intervene unless the subsidies were reestablished. Sadat restored the subsidies.
But does that mean the Army would be willing to step aside for whatever the will of the people turns out to be? For a government dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood, for instance? For a government hostile to the U.S.? to Israel?
Of course, the Army is not monolithic. Its lower ranks are very much of the people: filled with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, drawn from the most humble ranks of society. The army has traditionally been the most important means of socializing and educating the lower classes, in theory, inculcating them with a sense of pride and patriotism. Indeed the 1971 Constitution says that the Egyptian Army shall “belong to the people”" This sentiment was made dramatically clear by the iconic images of soldiers shaking hands and embracing the demonstrators, even allowing them to paint slogans on their battle tanks.
The top ranks of the army, however, have other concerns—beginning with personal survival. They certainly will never forget the lurid spectacle of Iranian generals being publicly executed in the aftermath of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. Iran also demonstrated that a radical revolution also means a radically transformed military. (Egypt’s generals have a constant reminder of that lesson nearby: The Shah is buried in a Cairo mosque.).
Under Mubarak, the top ranks of the Egyptian army have also enjoyed a pampered existence, in sprawling developments such as Cairo’s Nasr City. There, as elsewhere in Egypt, officers are housed in spacious condominiums, at highly subsidized rents, They enjoy other amenities the average Egyptian can only dream of, such as nurseries, schools and military consumer "cooperatives" selling a range of domestic and imported products at discount prices.
One of the most indulged units is the Egyptian Republican Guard, a heavily armored division, with the main responsibility of defending Cairo and key government institutions. They are under the control of the Minister of Defense. It is apparently the only significant military unit allowed in central Cairo, apart from the intelligence service’s military branch. Its ranks are filled primarily by highly motivated volunteers rather than conscripts. They are rewarded with bonuses, new cars and subsidized housing and greater training than the regular army.
The Guard was created originally in 1952 as a kind of Praetorian Guard by Nasser to protect the presidency. Do they still view that as their mission today?
But we’re not just talking about subsidized apartments. Many of Egypt’s military brass are notoriously corrupt. They have used their power to line their pockets, just as have their civilian government counterparts. It was military land, for instance, that was sold by the generals to finance some major urban developments near Cairo-with little if any accounting.
The military also presides over a sprawling network of 16 factories across the country, employing tens of thousands of Egyptians. These factories turn out not just weapons, but an incredible array of domestic products from dishwashers to computers to medical diagnostic equipment. The military’s farms produce enough food to feed their ranks with plenty left over to sell to civilians.
The military’s justification for all this non-military activity is that the army is just more efficient that civilians. But many civilian businessmen complain that competing with the military is like trying to compete with the Mafia. The army’s operations they say are riddled with cozy inside dealings. In any case, once again, there is no public accounting. No one is quite sure whether they are making or losing money or who is pocketing the profits. Their operations are all off the books.
Though unspoken, such considerations will certainly be in the minds of the generals calling the shots in Cairo.
The U.S. also has a 1.3 billion dollar carrot dangling in front of the Egyptian Army. That annual American military aid to Egypt has allowed the Egyptian officers to get their hands on some of the most sophisticated of modern weapons—as we’ve seen over the past few days in downtown Cairo.
The generals realize there is no way the U.S. will continue paying for those goodies if a new regime more hostile to Israel takes power in Cairo.
Will they be willing to let that go?
On the other hand, there has reportedly been a surge in Islamic militancy among the ranks of the military themselves—and their wives.
A frightening new era opens for Israel and its American friends.