Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Five Things You Need to Know about the Egyptian Armed Forces

by Steven A. Cook
January 31, 2011

There has been a lot of talk about the Egyptian military the last few days.  In light of this commentary, I thought it would be a good idea to offer the top 5 things people should know about the armed forces:

1. The senior officers are the direct descendants of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers who built the Egyptian regime.  The military has been a primary beneficiary of this political order and have not had to intervene overtly in politics until now because the system worked relatively well under a brother officer.  The armed forces, especially the commanders, are deeply enmeshed in the Egyptian economy.

2. It is a tremendous relief that the military has declared that it will not fire on protestors, but also not unexpected.  The Egyptian military is not the Syrian armed forces, which was willing to kill many thousands to save Hafiz al Assad in 1982.  The officers have long regarded keeping Egypt’s streets quiet the “dirty work” of the Interior Ministry.  Yet the declaration about restraint also has to do with internal military dynamics.  There is a split in the armed forces between the senior command on the one hand and junior officers and recruits on the other who would refuse to fire on protestors.  This has long been the Achilles heel of the Egyptian military.  The senior people never know whether those people below them will follow orders.  As a result, rather than risking breaking the army, the military will not use lethal force to put down the protests.

3. What is the strategy?  To contain and control the protests for as long as possible and play for time.  From the perspective of Mubarak, Vice President Omar Soleiman, the chief-of-staff General Sami Annan and the others now clinging to power every day provides an opportunity to try to weaken the opposition and peel the less committed from the demonstrations.  Is it any wonder that Soleiman started talking about constitutional change today?  The senior command believes they can save the regime.  Delusional?  Perhaps, but not surprising given their deep links to the regime.

4. If anyone ever doubted it, recent events highlight that the armed forces is the pillar of the regime.  The National Democratic Party no longer exists.  Big business has fled.  The police (remember all those arguments about how the police supplanted the military?) forces have collapsed.  Only the military remains and thus far they don’t seem to be budging.  We are getting into existential territory.  The result could be a drawn out stalemate with the military pursuing a holding action while Omar Soleiman’s intelligence service tries to split the opposition.  These guys are brutal, but not dumb.

5. The succession is already underway. The appointment of Soleiman as vice president only underscores that the military establishment is not giving up their informal link to the presidency and the regime.  If they can manage to salvage their difficult situation, the officers now in control will reconstitute the Egyptian leadership under Soleiman and Ahmed Shafiq, the new prime minister who is an air force officer (like Mubarak).  The important thing now is to manage Mubarak’s exit, which must be as graceful as possible at this point.  For honor’s sake, the brass won’t have it any other way.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Mbarak

    Superb analysis and I agree wholeheartedly. I also think Egyptians on the street do realize the above but it’s like they’re trying to use the Military Leader’s bluff against them, i.e. they believe if they protest hard enough they can get the soldiers on the streets on their side.

    Regardless it will be interesting to see how the coming days will play out. My prayers are for the safety of all people in Egypt.

  • Posted by Omer Gendler

    If the vice president, is from the Air Force as Mubarak, and the second vice president, is the head of intelligence. So it was all for nothing. No change will be in sight. Mubarak regime will be replace by onther general , like Mubarak succeeded Sadat as Sadat replaced Nasser.
    The regime remains the same regime

  • Posted by Saba E. Demian, M.D.

    This is a fairly accurate assessment of the situation; however, the corruption in the armed forces (AF) is not any less than in the rest of the country. The fact that there are two strong, though not evenly balanced factions in the AF, makes their role precarious and may be counterproductive. Of the two factions is under control of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB.) The MB and other extremist organizations have infiltrated all strata of the society, in all fields, and consequently, they have the upper hand. Having recruited El-Baradei as a front with a patina of democracy, they are rapidly gaining the hearts and the minds of the people. Mubarak is stepping down regardless. This is a given. What is best for Egypt, in my opinion, is an individual at the helm with a force de frappe. This does not necessarily have to be a brutal firing at the masses variety but, knowing that no one can cure all ills of the nation suddenly, the best interim authority should still reside in the hand of the AF, under Omar Suleiman, who would be given a period of grace to stabilize the country and attend to its immediate needs. It must be made clear that the alternate consequence of an Islamist nation, lead by the MB, is unacceptable for the Egyptians, the region and the West. Saba E. Demian, M.D.

  • Posted by Hal Donahue

    Then the military’s best interest should be in declaring military rule for several months with free and open elections to be held in the summer. This course of action then allows plenty of time to fracture the opposition.

    In either case, I do think this has gone too far. The genii is out of the bottle

  • Posted by Morgan Kaplan

    The military tells the protesters to go home. Violence breaks out between pro-Mubarak and pro-change supporters in Cairo, while the army does nothing but watch. Is there a chance this may be the catalyst for a split between the senior officers and the junior officers?

    Perhaps this will be the sign of self-destruction that young officers may not tolerate, much like the young Free Officers’ outrage over the conduct of the Egyptian regime and strategic performance of the military in the 1948 War.

    Given the recent turn of events, I don’t know what to expect. Either way, today’s events are perplexing and upsetting.

  • Posted by Ryan Jamil

    If is the case , the military itself is considered collapsing.On the national level the most important job of a leader is to predict developments and determine the direction the country is heading to.Egypt was a failed country ,but for certain reasons was given higher estimate.

  • Posted by Steve Harris

    It Brings to mind China’s interest in the African continent and that it’s PRC is born of another military industrial complex.

    Buying time and discrediting our Democratic president seems also to fit the mold.

    And it’s interesting that anti-regime protesters were shot and killed after a tank laid down a smoke screen in pre-dawn hours.

    Surely, seeds of dissent are sown here yet also a ploy appears. Look at the comments of Shafiq; a “‘blatant’ mistake”, and ‘a million percent wrong’. If I were a dissenting young officer I’d be careful what I said and who I said it to too.

    Money is Funny.

  • Posted by fawaz

    Straight, Short and Superb analyses

    Regime is trying to keep itself while releasing the steam (anger at street) by changing the face (mubarak). And my 27years in Arab world tells me that it will work …atleast for now !

    But these movements are irreversable in a way that people got the confidence. for the first time Arab rulers are witnessing the unknown phenomenon ‘Power of the poeple’.

  • Posted by Ernest Cox

    I happened to be in Prague shortly after Havel assumed power. The euphoric people in the streets told me “We will be living like you Americans in a year because we have democracy nd freedom.”

    When I returned the next year the FORMER euphorics were frustrated and disillusioned that their lives had not improved as they fantacized.

    History suggests that most revolutions have ultimately ended up replacing Despot A with Despot B. A change of face … But not a change of substance.

    One wonders in the Tahir Square Celebtators of 2011 will be similarly disillusioned come 2012 ??????

    Time will tell.

  • Posted by Maii

    I’m not sure from where you seem to get the confident tone nor the conspiritional scheme. But, it seems you need to exert more effort to understand & digest the mentality of the EGY Army :)

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