January 30th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

What do Egypt's generals want?

Editor's Note: Omar Ashour is a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center and Director of Middle East Graduate Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. For more, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Omar Ashour, Project Syndicate

“Whatever the majority in the People’s Assembly, they are very welcome, because they won’t have the ability to impose anything that the people don’t want.” Thus declared General Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Al-Mulla’s message was that the Islamists’ victory in Egypt’s recent election gives them neither executive power nor control of the framing of a new constitution. But General Sami Anan, Chief of Staff and the SCAF’s deputy head, quickly countered that al-Mulla’s statement does not necessarily represent the official views of the Council.

So, one year after the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who, exactly, will set Egypt’s political direction?

The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and the Salafi parties, which together won more than 70% of the parliamentary seats, will give them strong influence over the transitional period and in drafting the constitution. But they are not alone. Aside from the Islamists, two other powerful actors will have their say: the “Tahrirists” and the generals.

Tahrir Square-based activism has not only brought about social and political change, but also has served as the ultimate tool of pro-democracy pressure on Egypt’s military rulers. Indeed, while the army, the most powerful of the three actors, still officially controls the country, there is little confidence in the generals’ commitment to democracy. “The SCAF are either anti-democratic….or some of their advisers told them that democracy is not in their best interest,” says Hazem Abd al-Azim, a nominee in the first post-Mubarak government.

If the generals do not want democracy, nor do they want direct military rule à la Augusto Pinochet. So, what do they want? Ideally, they would like to combine the Algerian army’s current power and the Turkish army’s legitimacy. This implies a parliament with limited powers, a weak presidency subordinate to the army, and constitutional prerogatives that legitimate the army’s intervention in politics.

The minimum that they insist on is reflected in statements by Generals al-Mulla, Mamdouh Shahim, Ismail Etman, and others. That would mean a veto in high politics, independence for the army’s budget and vast economic empire, legal immunity from prosecution on charges stemming from corruption or repression, and constitutional prerogatives to guarantee these arrangements.

The new parliament and constitutional assembly will have to lead the negotiations with the SCAF. But, given that any successful democratic transition must include meaningful civilian control over the armed forces and the security apparatus, the SCAF’s minimum demands could render the process meaningless.

The veto in high politics would include any issues that touch on national security or sensitive foreign policy, most importantly the relationship with Israel. With an Islamist majority in the parliament promising to “revise” the peace agreement with Israel, tensions over foreign policy are likely to rise.

The independent military-commercial empire, which benefits from preferential customs and exchange rates, no taxation, land-confiscation rights, and an army of almost-free laborers (conscripted soldiers), is another thorny issue. With the Egyptian economy suffering, elected politicians might seek to improve conditions by moving against the military’s civilian assets – namely, by revising the preferential rates and imposing a form of taxation.

Immunity from prosecution is no less salient. “The Field-Marshal should be in jail now,” screamed the elected leftist MP, Abu Ezz al-Hariri, on the second day of the new parliamentary session. When Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson, proposed immunity (known in Egypt as the “safe-exit” option), he faced a wave of harsh criticism.

Pressure from the United States has also influenced the SCAF’s decision-making. “The military establishment receives $1.3 billion from the US….They are very sensitive to US requests,” according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who lobbied the Obama administration to support the revolution in January 2011.

But most of the SCAF’s pro-democracy decisions have come as a result of massive pressure from Tahrir Square. This includes the removal of Mubarak, his trial (and that of other regime figures), and bringing forward the presidential election from 2013 to June 2012.

Two other factors are equally, if not more, influential: the status quo inherited from the Mubarak era and the army’s internal cohesion. With few exceptions, the SCAF’s members benefited significantly from Mubarak’s regime. They will attempt to preserve as much of it as possible.

“The sight of officers in uniform protesting in Tahrir Square and speaking on Al Jazeera really worries the Field Marshal,” a former officer told me. And one way to maintain internal cohesion is to create “demons” – a lesson learned from the “dirty wars” in Algeria in the 1990’s and Argentina in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In particular, Coptic protesters are an easy target against which to rally soldiers and officers. Last October, amid an unnecessary escalation of sectarian violence, state-owned television featured a hospitalized Egyptian soldier screaming, “The Copts killed my colleague!” The systematic demonization of the Tahririst groups, and the violent escalation that followed in November and December, served the same purpose.

Despite everything, democratic Egypt is not a romantic fantasy. A year ago, Saad al-Ketatni, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, would never have dreamed of being Speaker of Parliament. The same applies to the leftists and liberals who now hold around 20% of the parliament’s seats.

If 2011 witnessed the miracle of Mubarak’s removal, a brave parliament’s institutional assertiveness, coupled with non-institutional Tahririst pressure, could force the generals to accept a transfer of power to civilian rule (with some reserved domains for the army establishment) in 2012. What is certain is that this year will not witness a return to the conditions of 2010. Egypt may become stuck in democratization’s slow lane, but there will be no U-turn. The hundreds of thousands who marched to Tahrir Square on the revolution’s anniversary will guarantee that.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Omar Ashour.

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Topics: Egypt • Military

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Ahmed

    great piece, i like your labeling of tahrirists ... they are trying to keep interior coherentes.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  2. Thinker23

    During the revolution in Egypt I've said that the military would grab the power and will hold it until the most ruthless of the generals would eliminate his less successful contenders. When it happens the next Egyptian President would be announced and the people of Egypt would enthusiastcally cheer him. One year later it seems that I was right.

    January 31, 2012 at 6:11 am | Reply
    • vasechek

      they do have a special word for king in that country, but it's not 'president' :)
      look for more bloodshed, too, as those who revolted against the previous one will look to prevent the crowning of another one.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Egypt's military has always been the pillars of regime strenght, playing its rule-and-divide game and enjoying privileges. The fall of Mubarak's regime saw the dominance of the SCAF in Egypt's politics. The Egyptians see that their revolution isn't finished under military rule, and therefore the country can't move forward with the military still in power.
    The SCAF gradually understands that Egyptians have lost their fear and cannot be ignored, yet it's difficult for them to relinquish power after having had a tight rein on vast parts of the country for decades. The Islamists are trying to strike a deal with the SCAF, letting it leave the stage and go back to the baracks. It will be interesting to see whether the U.S. would continue to contribute billions to Egypt's army.

    January 31, 2012 at 6:35 am | Reply
  4. Toppolina

    Finally someone who knows Egypt wrote about the present political situation. This must be the best and most honest article ever written about Egypt since the Revolution.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:28 am | Reply
  5. SPIES

    50% OF EGYPTION ARMY ARE SPIE TO ISRAEL AND USA AND GET PAID BY THEM...

    January 31, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • paul

      and 50% of your brains are fried eggs

      January 31, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  6. SPIES

    EAT KABSA , MARRY YOUNG WOMEN, SADISTIC, TORTOUR PEOPLE AND SLEEP LONGER THAT WHAT EGYPTION ARMY ARE.....WAKE UP

    January 31, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
  7. mmmmmmmmmmmm

    egyption women are fuc.....ing westren men all the time and they were scarf!!! mmmmmmmm

    January 31, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • paul

      can you blame them considering that the Muslim men spend most of their time whining and smoking the hookah and require the women to wear the scarf

      January 31, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  8. mmmmmmmmmmmm

    RASNEY YA GADA3

    January 31, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
  9. Charles Queen

    Those three Americans in Egypt right now knew all to well what could happen to them if the remaind in the country.One place you don't want to be in is a country thats revolting or trying to change it's form of government.If you decide to stay then you'r pretty much courting deth in most cases and these three are very lucky that they have been allowd to live

    January 31, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  10. zakariasucks

    They want power...what kind of a stupid question is that!

    January 31, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  11. edgy

    We supported one more pseudo-democratic overthrow of a legitimate foreign government. It is understood that the US only acts in it's own self-interest, and that is as it should be. What is galling is that no American official, including the Sec of State listened to experienced State Dept Middle Eastern hands who would have predicted the current state of affairs.
    This country needs to start making pragmatic decisions instead of emotional political ones. There is no doubt a bloody showdown is coming between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army. The US loses either way. WE need to stand back and let this play out.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  12. Hikerstud

    Sometimes we think we know best but long term? Like intervening in WW1 or II or Korea blah blah. Yes millions more would have died in Britain, Europe, Asia etc. They might all still be under communism or fascism. But we would not be financially imploding. Our people suffering, etc etc. Hard to tell but we are in deep in the whole world now.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      It seems that you believe that the United States are somehow on another planet. I can assure you that you're mistaken and that the United States as well as Canada, Mexico and all Latin America countries share the very same planet with Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and even the Middle East. This means that the events in those places affect the United States much more than they would in case Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia the Middle East were located on a different planet.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  13. LV

    Money.

    Remember, the military there makes durable goods, and they're the only provider - washing machines, furniture, TVs, cars, and they even run resorts.

    You think the people cashing in on that now want things to change? Civilian rule would mean loss of cash/jobs for them.

    Why did anyone expect Eqypt to change?

    Why does anyone thing regimes like that will change?

    In countries where nobody has any idea what freedom is, how can democracy work?

    It won't. We're wasting our time thinking Arab Spring really means change.

    January 31, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  14. anonymous

    power & money - duh....

    January 31, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  15. Patriot

    If Egypt takes it slow and over a period of time decomracry will entrench itself if infighting continues decomracy will have a quick death and keep religion out of it

    January 31, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  16. George Patton

    What do Egyptian generals want? The answer is simple enough. They want to retain power by any means available and that includes remaining cronies of the right-wing thugs in Washington and thus continue taking orders from the C.I.A.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      I'm afraid that you're contradicting yourself. Retaining POWER means directly the opposite, namely NOT taking orders from the C.I.A. or anyone else.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  17. Benedict

    The Egyptian General‘s aspirations tp keep the status quo remind me of the SS of Nazi Germany. They operated as a“state within a state“ wholly independant of all but Hitler. If the men in khaki can‘t abide civilian control,the social upheveal will be bloody!

    February 1, 2012 at 1:55 am | Reply
  18. bill

    they don't even know what they want

    February 2, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  19. wake up Obama and smeal the coffee

    Russia and china interests , embassies and economic departments will be under attack in the middleast and any where in the world
    as they defend the killers in Syria and iran those evil must be dealt with on grass root level and must be hit hard before we hit bashar al asad of Syria, the resistant are working hard now to find the targets inside Russia and Russian targets inside middleast .,..wait and see ... bashar al asad killed 9345 almost 10,000 people already as his father before him who killed 30,000 in one week, those killers must be hanged, Saddam was hanged because he order to kill 40 spies, so al asad must be hanged 40 time over and over again

    February 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  20. Frank

    It is very clear that the Egyptian Military counsel intends to hand the country over to Muslim Brotherhood and Radical Muslims to make Egypt a Muslim state even more radical than Iran and a dangerous threat to Israel
    .1-Egypt's Generals allowed three thausand Jehadists to come back to Egypt .
    2-Release many Jehadists from prisons
    3-Dropped 2 criminal Charges againest the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate "Khayrat Al Shater"

    April 1, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply

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