Understanding the Egyptian military’s role

The Egyptian military began establishing itself as an institution before Nasser’s coup in 1952.  By the end of Britain’s colonial rule, the military had defeated other elite groups that vied for the role of post-British leadership. The military capitalised upon both its connexion to Egyptian families and the King’s constant praise. As discontent spread, Nasser’s populist ideals grew stronger in the hearts of Egyptians and the military secured its role as liberator of the nation and embodiment of state. Irrespective of misconduct throughout the years, the army has persistently relied upon historical memory and financial power to maintain and consolidate control.

Already partially supporting itself before 1952, the military has since been producing its own goods in its own factories. Socially, the army connected all classes facilitating the promulgation of nationalist and pan-Arab ideology – strengthening its political power. Nationalist pride swelled and the Free Officers went on to seal authority by defeating the British at Suez. The battle won, Nasser swiftly led the military into a coup that would make him the first president of Egypt until his death in 1970.

The revolution restored the dignity of many Egyptians who had spent years under the oppression of colonial rule. As president, Nasser restricted politics, monopolised on power, and imposed radical modernisation programs under which the population suffered greatly. Despite the hardship endured by society, all suffered equally thus bolstering military support, strengthening patriotic pride and safeguarding positive memory.  Nasser’s oppression of political culture made it impossible for a healthy alternative of leadership to form which has arguably aided the military until recently. Their initial monopoly on political power for almost twenty years allowed military men who had ulterior motives to close the door on potential outside influences, protecting their interests.

Heroes of the nation, counter force against Israel and a part of every Egyptian family “which number nearly half a million soldiers in uniform and about the same number in reserves.” (1), the military now directly benefits many families as sponsors of the nation’s most popular sports clubs. During the bread riots in 2008, they were ordered by government to increase bread production in their factories to help mollify the furious crowds of protesters. After the assassination of Sadat, a former chief marshal of the Egyptian Air force, Vice President Mubarak took his place as President for the next three decades. Since his appointment in 1981, Mubarak continued to entrench the military into the state’s political matters. In return for their complete subordination to him, they were granted special favours and control over specific policies.

The Egyptian military has used shocks that have occurred in the form of the state economy, trade, social and political issues, labour force and foreign policy to consolidate its power throughout the decades. Professionalization of the military from the 70s supporting further improvements to its political status. Mubarak upheld emergency law and continued to stifle politics during his 30 year dictatorship. Quite opposite to Nasser, the free market was the economic template which supported Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.

Instead of curbing economic decline with Egypt’s vast reserves in assets, Mubarak accepted an IMF loan. Continuation of Sadat’s free market revolution and aided by IMF conditions, further privatisation of the state was justified, benefiting individuals who had something to offer. Under Mubarak, Egypt had clocked up “four economic programs that were supported financially by the IMF, totalling $1.850 billion at end-May 2011.” (2) Whilst ordinary Egyptian’s into crisis, the military used this opportunity to capitalise upon Egypt’s ‘reinvigorated’ economy (3).

The 2011 revolution showed little sign of abating and Mubarak’s worthless concessions on direction of the army failed to quell the uprising. The SCAF was obliged to secure its interests and watch the ex-President abdicate. Now the second phase of the revolution is in full swing and Morsi will stand on trial after a year in power. Despite changes in context, the military will continue to take a leading role in the case of a power vacuum and shall remain the ‘alternative’ in Egyptian politics until a secure political culture is allowed to evolve.

Despite western media’s obsession with the percentage of the economy the army owes, very little is traceable – however the figures of 20-30% are frequently sighted with little source. The main source of the military’s success is based in its historical memory, political involvement and social importance. For more information on the real economic impact of the Egyptian military click here.

This is a small extract I have adapted from my university thesis on the Egyptian military and path dependence theory.

To read more about the Egyptian military:

(1)    Time World, (2001), ‘Egypt’s Military Industrial Complex’http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2046963,00.html

(2)    IMF.org, (2010), ‘History of Lending Arrangements’ 2010, http://www.imf.org/external/np/exr/countryfacts/egy/

(3)    IPS News (2011) ‘Privatisation Aided Egyptian Revolt, Says Army’ http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/04/privatisation-aided-egypt-revolt-army-says/

Bloomberg, (2011), ‚Three Decades with Egypt’s Military Keep U.S. in Loop’, 2/2/2012 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-02/three-decades-of-missions-weapons-training-for-egypt-keep-u-s-in-loop.html

Heikal, M. (1983) Auntumn of Fury Corgi Books

Heikal, M. (1988) Cutting the Lion’s Tail Corgi Books

Sharp, J., (2013), Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations, Congressional Research Service pp1-22


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