The Egyptian Military Faces Its Defining Hour

On February 11, 2011 we all hailed Mubarak’s fall as a new revolution. The truth is that it was less a true revolution than a very popular military coup. It was Egypt’s armed forces who decided that Mubarak had to go, and they did so specifically to head off a true revolution, not to inaugurate one. Indeed, the Egyptian armed forces appear to have calculated then that they needed to get rid of Mubarak to save the wider political system he had built—and from which they benefitted enormously. As I examine in my chapter “The Arab Militaries: The Double Edged Sword” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East, Egypt and the rest of the Arab world must balance military strength with civilian leadership to succeed and prosper.

In the 1990s, when Egypt was struggling economically and the Egyptian officer corps was suffering from low wages and even lower prestige, Mubarak granted them carte blanche to supplement their wages and perks from the annual budget by investing in Egypt’s economy. The generals did so reluctantly but successfully, using their influence and funds to gain control of large segments of the Egyptian economy (perhaps as much as 25-33 percent by some estimates). This, in turn, became a critical component of their personal wealth and institutional strength. By making the military less reliant on budgetary spending and more dependent on their control of the economy, Mubarak inadvertently cut his own “power of the purse” and gave the armed forces a certain amount of economic independence. He also gave them an incentive to resist far-reaching political-economic change however they could.

As a result, when Egyptians began to take to the streets in January to demand fundamental political-economic change, it galvanized the military to act. They were determined to prevent the kind of change that would endanger their own power and position, including their role in the civilian economy. They decided, for this reason among others, that sacrificing Mubarak was necessary to head off demands for wider, more dangerous (to their interests) change.

Since then the military has tried to pursue two increasingly divergent tracks. On the one hand, they have insisted that they do not want to rule the country and have tried to enable a transition to democracy. On the other hand, they have insisted on maintaining ultimate authority over the transition and have announced that the new civilian leadership would be precluded from exercising authority over certain spheres sacrosanct to the armed forces. In short, they would gladly hand power to a new civilian government but the military would sit above the civilian government and the civilians would not be able to trespass on whatever the military considered important to it. 

This approach was always bound to experience severe strains, and was unlikely to work at all. As we noted in The Arab Awakening, this reflects a fundamental dilemma between the “ideal” Turkish model and the real Turkish model. In an ideal world (or some idealized telling of history), the Turkish military was meant to stand apart from politics as the disinterested guardian of the secular, democratic political system, ensuring that no political faction could subvert that system. The reality has been that, up until the last decade, the Turkish military intervened routinely in politics to advance its own narrow interests. The Egyptian military wants to have it both ways, and in recent weeks, Egyptians are increasingly insisting that they cannot.

The events in Tahrir Square are thus a far more profound challenge to the Egyptian armed forces than was Mubarak’s fall, stunning though that was. This time around, there is no scapegoat to sacrifice to expiate popular anger. This time, the crowds are demanding fundamental change to the political system, and that the military stand back and allow that fundamental change to occur.

It is why what is playing out now in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities is actually of far greater consequence than what happened in February. If the military gives way, it will mean that a fundamental reinvention of the system is now possible—although which direction it takes remains up for grabs. If not, they will have to resort to repression to hold power, and if they succeed in doing so, it will mean the reincarnation of Mubarakism without Mubarak.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is now finally, truly confronting the ultimate choice between repression and revolution—hopefully peaceful and gradual. And no one knows which they will choose.