Much has been written about the revolutionary spring that hit Egypt, about the corrupted regime of Husni Mubarak, about democracy prospects the country has or has not or about the crucial role of the social media in organizing the uprising. Yet, there is one aspect that has been in the analysis and commentaries somewhat left aside – even though, it has played a crucial role in the uprising and post-Mubarak Egypt. By this aspect, I mean the Egyptian army.
The Egyptian army was the actor whose decision during the uprising mattered most. Should the army have decided to support the regime, the revolution might have ended, in a better case, with thousands of casualties; in a worse case, it might have followed the bloody Syrian scenario of a civil war. Yet, the army eventually after a long period of waiting and hesitation, opted to support the demonstrators. Thus, it betrayed the regime of Husni Mubarak that had so much relied on its support. The masses bursted into euphoria when the regime fell and chanted "al-gayish wa as-shaab yad wahda" (the army and people are one in hand). The army became the hero of the uprising.
Yet, the army did not entirely mean to become the hero and the safeguard of the revolution. In the following period, the army (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – SCAF) ruled the country (till June 2012) and during the few months, witnessed a sharp drop in its popularity – from a celebrated hero of the uprising it became a foe of the revolution’s ideals. The SCAF proved to be reluctant to adopt steps required by the revolution – e.g. the punishment of the old regime’s representatives, the reform of the highly unpopular security apparatus, the abolition of the emergency law (valid since 1981). Moreover, under the SCAF ruling thousands of young activists were brought in front of military courts (infamous for their hearings’ speed and deprivation of basic rights of the defendants). The army also did not hesitate to crack down on rallies and demonstrations leaving numbers of injured and in several cases also casaulties (e.g. the Maspero incident; clashes in Muhammad Mahmud street).
In this respect, the initial chant "al-gayish wa al- as-shaab yad wahda" – the army and people are one hand - proved to be far from the reality. The army clearly did not side with the revolutionaries in their requirements and ideals. So, why, then did the army decide to side with the demonstrators gathered in Tahrir against the regime. What was its goal? What does the army actually want to achieve?
These intricate questions can be answered with a short riddle: what do activities such as producing pasta, maintaining gas stations, providing subsidized bread, building roads or speculating with the real estates have in common? Seemingly, nothing at all. Though, in Egypt, their common denominator is the army.
Over the last three decades, the activities of the Egyptian army have to a great extent exceeded the usual and expected field of competence, i.e. the defense of the country. Given the privileged position, supported by an extensive crony system, the Egyptian army has become a powerful economic actor that nowadays controls, according to expert estimates, up to 30 percent of the Egyptian GDP.
The foundations of the military economic dimension can be traced back to the end of the 70s. The peace deal with Israel (1978) left the unsettling question of what to do with the idleness of more than 700,000 soldiers. The answer can be found when one observes the deep integration of the army into the economic structures. So, the army was entrusted to run state companies and to employ the conscripts for the development projects across the country.
Given to the advanteged position of the military companies (exempted from taxation, accelerated bureaucratic procedures, absence of civilian accountability) the military industrial complexes were soon boosted to an unprecedented extent. So, the military and its activities influence the daily life of the most Egyptians. In addition to that, the regime was buying the loyalty of high ranking military officials through giving away lucrative positions in the economic and administrative sector. Thus, it furthermore extended the influence of the military on the economic performance of the country.
It is the economic power and privileged position – not the ideals of the revolution – which the army wants to keep the grip on. So far, the military has managed to sweep away any popular demands threatening its position (e.g. opening its budget for civilian scrutiny). Yet, if the Egyptian revolution should be completed, the army and its privileges have to be challenged.
Written by Helena Burgrova and published on 13-January-2013