What Is the Egyptian Military’s New Role?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

I worry that some of the euphoria of the Egyptian revolution might be premature. The revolution, after all, is not yet complete. A military takeover, while certainly better than the status quo, is not the same thing as democracy.

It is easy, especially now, to forget that the army was long the backbone of the old regime. In other words, the military is not a pro-democracy organization. It has benefited from the status quo, becoming a privileged, powerful economic force in society. It has something to gain, but also, perhaps, quite a lot to lose.

What, then, do the senior commanders – now the de facto rulers of Egypt – want from the coming transition phase? Above all, the military is concerned with stability and order. It is not interested in the radical change that some Egyptians hope for. Will it tolerate large-scale protests in Tahrir Square, or will it restrict demonstrations, arguing that Egyptians’ key demand – that Mubarak step down – has already been met.

Like most large, bureaucratic organizations, the army is not a unitary actor. If there are, in fact, significant divisions within the top military brass, then the Obama administration has a critical role to play. There are extensive ties between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, cemented by tens of billions of dollars in American assistance over the past three decades. The United States can and should use this leverage to ensure the military fulfills its promises of real democratic change. If it doesn’t – or if it ever decides to use force against Egyptians – then there should be significant consequences, and those should be made expressly clear.

Of course, this would constitute the “foreign interference” that former President Mubarak warned against in his non-concession speech. But, sometimes, interference is exactly what’s needed to tip the balance.