For almost six decades, the Egyptian army has operated above politics. No matter what they did, no one dared to hold the army generals accountable. The last time they faced intense scrutiny was after the humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 (naksa), which led to the trial of Field Marshal Abdelhakim Amer and the Minister of Defence Shams Badran during the Nasser epoch.
However, since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak last February, the celebratory image of the Egyptian military as the guardian of the revolution has been crumbling. This is not only due to the catastrophic blunders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the de facto rulers of Egypt, but more importantly because the revolution itself aimed to end the military’s dominance in Egypt since 1952. Mubarak was not only a despot who stayed in power longer than any other Egyptian ruler since Mohamed Ali’s reign in the nineteenth century, but he was also a veteran who consolidated his power base while serving in the Egyptian army for almost four decades.
Mubarak was the heir of two autocratic presidents, Nasser and Sadat, who set about building the military into everyday politics. Contrary to his predecessors though, Mubarak, upon assuming power in 1981, shrewdly sought to neutralize the army’s influence in politics. He tended to co-opt high-ranking army generals to this plan through economic and social privileges and by excluding and marginalizing those who might threaten his authority. The result of this series of policies was the depoliticization of the military elite.
So it was that once Mubarak was removed, SCAF was faced with an immense quandary about how to deal with a volatile and highly fluid political environment. Egypt’s highest military institution was taken by surprise by last January’s revolution, and it did not have any plans on how to fill the vacuum left by the absence of Mubarak’s brutal apparatuses. While SCAF did not side with Mubarak in the face of Tahrir protesters; it still has no idea on what the next phase should be. Its out-dated and conservative mind-set, jumbled ideology, and extreme wariness, fails to convince Egyptians that SCAF can competently run the country. Neither has SCAF succeeded in containing the growing discontent among young activists who have astutely de-legitimized and exposed SCAF’s policy over the past ten months.
Moreover, the discourse of the Egyptian military reveals its limited political skills and poor management of civil affairs. When SCAF leaders stress that they do not seek to maintain power we should believe them. This is not because they lack political ambitions or the desire to maintain their current supremacy, but simply because they are politically incapable of consolidating their status. Unlike the Free Officers who took power after the coup d’état of the 1952, SCAF’s leaders do not have the mechanisms necessary to tighten their grip on power: a coherent ideology, a political organization, and a platform for modernization.
As a result of Mubarak’s policy to de-politicize the army, the Egyptian military did not adopt or develop a unique political doctrine or ideology e.g. Nasser’s socialism or Sadat’s liberalism (Infitah). Apart from its traditional and more conservative character, the Egyptian military is not inclined to espouse particular political preferences. True, some SCAF leaders sought to elaborate such a preference, e.g. the attempt by Sami Anan, the Chief of Staff, to defend the civilian nature of the Egyptian state vs. the Islamists. However, for many Egyptians this seems totally untenable. Unlike Nasser who embraced socialism and pan-Arabism to galvanize the masses, SCAF leaders are struggling to comprehend how young Egyptians think and what they aspire to. In the words of one young activist, "They [SCAF leaders] lack the political imagination to articulate a position that avoids conflict on the street, but shows a presence in the square: they're portraying themselves as worse than they are”.
A junta must have a potent and compelling political machine that can inspire people and win their loyalty. For instance, to consolidate his power Nasser dissolved all political parties and associations and created the single-party system. The role of the Arab Socialist Union (al-Ithad al-Arbi al-Ishtraki) was not to dominate the political arena but more importantly to disseminate Nasserism among Egyptians and beyond. Unlike his predecessor, Sadat moved from the one-party system towards a more restricted pluralism. He created weak and fragile political parties with one dominant party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). More blatantly, Mubarak further weakened the political parties and gave more power to the NDP.
Contrary to its predecessors, SCAF has put in place regulations to establish new political parties after the revolution. As a result, more than 25 parties have been established since last February in addition to the existing 24 parties, which brings the full count to 49 parties. Clearly, SCAF does not rely upon a political apparatus that can diffuse its doctrine and it has not invested in creating such a political mechanism. The sole institution that helps SCAF resolve the political complexities of the post-Mubarak era is the Public Intelligence Apparatus (Jihaz a-Mukhabrat al’ama). This outfit played a historically tremendous role in the construction of various Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. It alone of Egypt’s institutions remains substantially untouched by the Egyptian revolution. Many Egyptians believe, that the Mukhabrat provides policy recommendations to SCAF on how to act and how to make decisions.
It is has become apparent that SCAF does not have a programme for the future, nor does it have a vision for modernizing the country. Over the past ten months, SCAF has failed to deliver the bare necessities for Egyptians, e.g. preserving individuals’ security, managing food prices, increasing wages etc. More ironically, when protesters in Tahrir Square have called for forming a new salvation government after the deadly clashes with security forces, SCAF defied them and appointed Kamal El-Ganzouri, a 78-year old political veteran who served under Mubarak, as prime minister. Appointing El-Ganzouri, despite the criticism, reflects not only the enormous generational gap between SCAF leaders and Tahrir protesters but more significantly the mounting mistrust between both parties which can only lead to more clashes.
If we are going to treat the Egyptian revolution as a soft coup d’état, it must be characterized as a coup without a plan. SCAF’s leaders lack Nasser’s talented and charismatic leadership, Sadat’s savvy, and Mubarak’s vigilance. That is why military rule in Egypt will not ultimately prevail.