‘One hand’, many heads: the role of the army in Egypt

In control: army tanks outside the Ministry of Defence, Cairo, June 2012. iPolitics via Creative Commons

In the wake of the shooting of at least 51 supporters of former president Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is calling for a popular uprising against the generals that ousted Muhammad Morsi last week. It is unlikely that their call will be answered, at least not in numbers to rival the millions that poured into the streets demanding his removal.

Part of the explanation for the Brotherhood’s limited leverage now is the widespread disapproval for Morsi’s performance during his year in office. But more fundamentally, it is difficult to imagine a large-scale popular revolution against Egypt’s military.

The debate about whether the ousting of Morsi constitutes a popular revolution or a military coup is a heated one to say the least. Describing the process as a coup denies the agency of millions of protesting Egyptians, implying that they are unwitting pawns in a game played by power-hungry generals.

But classifying it as a revolution suggests a naive blindness to power dynamics within the Egyptian regime, and dangerous optimism about the officers’ good faith willingness to implement the people’s will. To argue, instead, that it is both revolution and coup is safer, but also problematic as it implies that the two processes are somehow separate, even coincidental.

Soul of the people: protesters board and army truck in Tahrir Square, January 2011. Wikimedia Commons

The idea that the military views itself as the soul of the nation, or the guardian of the people, is as accurate as it is banal. But there is more to this than mere propaganda. The history of the relationship between the armed forces and the Egyptian people reveals that “people power” has been as essential to the survival of the military leadership as a distinct actor within the Egyptian state since 1952 as has actual force.

The enduring ability of the military to garner popular support stems from the fact that, thanks to conscription, war making, and its role as a major employer, the military has been “of the people”. The esprit de corps of the armed forces has percolated through to much of society. The nature and extent of this has varied over the years, but the idea of the military as the people’s revolutionary vanguard is one that has deep roots.

Nasser era - vanguard of the revolution

When the Free Officers, led by a young colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, mounted their coup in 1952 they did so against a backdrop of popular revolutionary mobilisation against colonialism which, in the wake of the disastrous 1948 Palestine War, also took aim at the monarchy of King Farouk and his civilian government. That popular mobilisation was not to install a military regime but to liberate Egypt from colonial occupation and replace an anachronistic regime with one more in tune with the values and aspirations of the people. It nevertheless took officers in uniform to oust the civilian political leadership, junior officers that were themselves of the people and shared their grievances.

The euphoria following the successful defence of the nation by the army and the people against three foreign aggressors in the Suez War of 1956 enabled Nasser to further consolidate his power within the state, and by extension that of the military, by drawing on direct popular support. Subsequently the fate of the military and that of the popular revolution merged, ideologically, into one. The goal of strengthening the armed forces as the fighting vanguard of the Arab revolution was enshrined in the 1962 National Charter.

Tool of the regime: army units being inspected by King Farouk. Wikimedia Commons

Unsurprisingly, the populist formation of the Egyptian military has (even, in some respects, under Nasser) served counter-revolutionary purposes. In the early 1970s Egyptian university students were calling for a revolutionary “people’s war” to liberate Palestine, implying that the military regime was as incapable of realising this as it was of delivering democracy at home. Anwar Sadat neutralised this threat to his authority by deploying the military in a surprise attack against Israel in 1973. The president’s new status as “hero of the crossing” brought the broader Egyptian public to the regime’s side and effectively extinguished the movement for democratic change that had been building since 1968.

Peace undermines army influence

A new chapter in the military’s relation with the people opened with the Peace Treaty of 1979. From this point on the war option against Israel was taken off the table. The discourse of revolution, which had bound the army and the people together in common cause, was also quietly discarded under Sadat. No longer on a war footing, the military diverted resources, and personnel, into domestic economic ventures. Although this left the popular prestige of the military less assured, it generated employment, and a sense of identity, for millions of Egyptians.

The military’s unrivalled control over the levers of state started to weaken with the neo-liberal reforms introduced in the 1990s. The rise of a reformist wing within the ruling National Democratic Party compromised an institution that served as the principal instrument for ensuring national policies remained in line with the military’s interests. By 2010, although the generals opposed the succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal, chief standard bearer of the “new guard” within the NDP, they could not be sure of their capacity to prevent it. Most worrying from their perspective may have been the ballooning of the internal security forces that reported to interior minister, Habib al-Adly, a close ally of Gamal.

Army and people: ‘one hand’

The uprising of January 2011 thus presented an opportunity for the military to rekindle some of its tarnished revolutionary legitimacy, while in the process dealing with the NDP, which had become an unreliable conduit for its influence. It is an open question whether the generals would have moved independently against Gamal had he won the presidential elections scheduled for that year. But the fact that much of the opposition activity prior to January 2011 was focused on the heredity succession question renders this something of a moot point. In any case, while the generals were the ones that forced Mubarak to step down, it was the Egyptian people that defeated al-Adly’s police in the streets. They were in reality, and not just rhetoric, id wahida - one hand.

The ousting of Morsi does indeed amount to a military coup, and that coup would indeed not have happened without a massive popular revolutionary movement. But it is almost inconceivable to imagine one without the other given the material significance of the military within Egyptian society and its role in public consciousness.

A significant mass uprising against the military regime per se is even harder to imagine in the near future: compare the size of the demonstrations Egypt witnessed against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) between February 2011 and June 2012 with those against Mubarak and Morsi.

The Muslim Brotherhood arguably recognises this and has, until now, pursued strategies of reform rather than confrontation with the regime. Islamists that have used violence against the regime in the past have failed to attract a mass following. But Egypt’s military leaders depend on the Egyptian people in a profound way, and the challenge for those striving for a democratic future is how to turn this knowledge into power.

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