Middle East

Egypt's Generals Won't Allow a Smooth Transition

A young Egyptian chants anti-SCAF slogans at a rally in Toronto, Canada, on Jan. 21.

As the world followed the Egyptian revolution for 18 days last year, it was incredibly popular and inspiring. However, since the military takeover, the complex dynamics in Egypt have led to claims that this revolution was simply a coup implemented by the people, for the benefit of the high ranking generals in the Egyptian army. The prospect of a genuine democratic transition is being questioned, and similar experiences in various countries have proven repeatedly that democracy cannot survive under military rule. The Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is no exception. For many reasons, the SCAF will not allow a smooth democratic transition, largely because its high-ranking officials have a deep desire to keep their influence and their privileged status in the post-revolutionary state.

On Jan. 28, 2011, the masses, including revolutionaries and regular citizens, celebrated the army soldiers' armored takeover of the Egyptian streets. At that time, the popular belief held that the army generals had sided with the revolution. The clearest representative of this sentiment was the newly popularized chant, "The people and the army are one hand!" Less than one year later, the SCAF's popularity has sharply declined. The chant has instead become, "Down, down with military rule!"

The way the SCAF is managing the transitional period reveals that a smooth handover of power is unlikely soon. Their purposeful chaotic management is visible in the unwarranted use of force against peaceful protestors, virginity tests for female protesters, military trials for civilians and the continuation of emergency law. This premeditated chaos is being put into action simply because a consolidated democracy would curtail the privileges and elite status consistently enjoyed by the high-ranking Egyptian generals since the July 1952 military coup.

The SCAF is running an enormous economic empire. The Egyptian army manufactures a wide range of products, from bottled water, pipes, olive oil and electric cables to construction companies and large plots of land. There are no accurate estimates regarding the sharing of this profit with the national economy; observers say that army activities constitute between 5 percent and 45 percent of the Egyptian economy. According to the daily newspaper Al-Shorouk, the army's investments have increased over time. In 1979, they amounted to approximately 11 million Egyptian pounds, which increased in 1990 to 644 million, and in 2011 reached the total of 6.3 billion Egyptian pounds. The net profit between 1990 and 2011 has been 7.7 billion pounds.

On top of that, the Egyptian military has also dominated top posts in the civil service. Twenty-one of Egypt's twenty-nine provincial governors are former members of the military and security services, and retired military officers are often seen scattered throughout the middle-management levels of the public sector.

This deep and diverse involvement of the military in both the Egyptian economy and in state bureaucracy makes it difficult for members of this elite to easily give up their bountiful privileges. Allowing a transparent and democratic authority to take control of post-revolutionary Egypt would put these privileges at serious risk, and public scrutiny over their assets would reveal a number of corrupt practices. Last week, Major General Mahmoud Nasr, the deputy defense minister for financial affairs, said, "We will not allow anyone, whoever they may be, to come near the projects of the Armed Forces."

The SCAF consistently attempts to keep the black box in which they reside closed by institutionalizing their privileged status. Last November, former Prime Minister Deputy Ali El-Salmey presented a supra-constitutional proposal to work as a guide for the new constitution, guaranteeing a politically secured, privileged position for the army. According to this proposal, everything dealing with military issues, the budget and military-related laws would be discussed and decided only by the SCAF.

These attempts reinforce what many studies have determined, which is that the military rule is, by nature, very conservative and always acts to protect its institutional interests. Theorists like Samuel P. Huntington suggest that even when military regimes give up power more or less voluntarily, army influence over politics continues after their withdrawal from power.

Many Wikileaks cables about the role of the army in the Egyptian state have confirmed their conservative nature. In a March 2008 cable, U.S. Ambassador to Cairo Francis Ricciardone described Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister and head of the SCAF, as "aged and change-resistant." Another cable from 2008 described Tantawi as opposed to "economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power." This cable also added, "Tantawi and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo. They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently." In December 2010, a Wikileaks cable exposed that in the coming transitional period the Egyptian military will be mainly concerned with whether Egypt's next president will protect its vast economic holdings.

The military junta has failed to achieve even a minimal level of social justice. Nearly the same exact set of economic policies that was applied by the former regime is still being applied by the ruling military. No serious decisions have been made or even discussed to address the severe economic grievances experienced by Egypt's impoverished citizens on a daily basis, particularly the unfair wage system. The army generals have failed to implement radical social reforms, which, if implemented, would have given them a level of credit and dramatically increased their legitimacy. Such reforms were the main reason behind the military rule's survival after the July 1952 coup, and now the Egyptian people can thank the SCAF for abandoning them.

The SCAF will not allow a smooth democratic transition. However, the facts on the ground assert that the Egyptian people will no longer tolerate an authoritarian regime. Nonetheless, ending the military stronghold on Egyptian politics is not an easy task. It is a gradual process that requires institutional arrangements under the auspices of powerful civil elected bodies backed by massive popular support.

Mohamed Elgohari participated in the Egyptian revolution before moving to New York last August to pursue a master's degree at New York University in comparative politics. His blog at https://mohamedalgohri.wordpress.com/ (in Arabic) is dedicated to his reflections on the ongoing dynamics in Egypt.