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Egypt: The fall of the officers’ state | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A few days before Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi – the former Egyptian Minister of Defense, General Commander of the Army and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] – along with a large number of SCAF members was ordered into retirement on 12 August 2012, I received an email from Yazid Sayegh, a professor of political science and researcher at the US Carnegie Endowment institution. The email contained a research paper entitled “Above the state: the Officers’ Republic in Egypt”. The paper expertly summarizes the available literature regarding the nature of the Egyptian state since Dr. Anwar Abdul-Malik published his renowned book “Egypt: Military Society”. With his tireless research ability, Dr. Yazid Sayegh consolidates this viewpoint by offering precise details about how the Egyptian armed forces “infiltrated” all fields of society. The army gained the upper hand, obtained concessions and penetrated state apparatuses, particularly supervisory bodies, not to mention local governance. Through civil service and by establishing the infrastructure, the armed forces were successfully able to infiltrate society and the economy. In summary, the Egyptian military institute, particularly after the January 2011 revolution, became the “guardian” of Egyptian society through armed and systematic force, and by manipulating the “hidden state”.

Shortly after this research paper arrived, a series of dramatic incidents took place, beginning on 5 August, when a military border checkpoint encountered a terrorist attack. On 8 August, Major General Murad Muwafi, former Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, together with a group of military leaders including several commanders of the Republican Guard, the military police and others including the Governor of Sinai, were all relieved of their posts. Only a few days later, specifically on 12 August, 2012, Field Marshal Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami Anan, and numerous commanders of the land, air and marine forces and military districts were ordered into retirement in accordance with a decree passed by President Mohamed Mursi. In all simplicity SCAF was being restructured; a new Minister of Defense was appointed and almost the entire military institute was reshuffled by the new civil authority. As for the old military remnants, Field Marshal Tantawi was appointed as a presidential advisor and was awarded the Order of the Nile, whereas the former Chief of Staff was also appointed a presidential advisor and was granted the Republic’s Order of Merit. Major General Muhab Mamish, the former navy commander who was appointed as head of the Suez Canal Authority, told the al-Masry al-Youm newspaper that the decision to forcibly retire him was made whilst he was asleep, and when his secretary woke him up to inform him of the news, he obeyed it, as did all his SCAF colleagues who began congratulating one another on their new positions.

I wonder what has happened to the officers’ state in Egypt, which seemed like the very embodiment of the “Leviathan” as described by Thomas Hobbes in his famous book that bears the same title. Nevertheless, this military state was removed extremely easily from the top down. It is likely that the dismissals will continue in the days to come with the reshuffle of governors, local offices, ambassadors and other positions that were traditionally only held by army officers. The old status quo was considered a means of “empowerment” for the military institution, which aimed to hold onto power forever. Yet corrective surgery has been carried out extremely smoothly and easily by a president who only came to the helm a few weeks ago, and who had no troops at his disposal or a security apparatus to enable him to detain his opponents if they decided to object to his decision.

Explaining the political struggle in Egypt between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mursi’s radical reshuffle, in terms of the massacre committed along the Egyptian-Israeli border is unconvincing. This is because [new Minister of Defence] General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi was previously the head of Military Intelligence, which placed Sinai at the top of its priorities. Similarly all military commanders – both the old and the new – were at the heart of the battle to combat terrorism in Sinai. Besides this, part of the problem lies in Egypt’s regional relations with Israel, the peace agreements signed with it and the annexed security protocol agreements, not to mention Egyptian-Palestinian relations. Likewise, explaining what happened on the grounds of the Brotherhood achieving a tactical victory over the military institute and its aging military leaders is also unconvincing, for the move certainly does not represent a strategic victory, nor will it substantially change the balance of political power. The changes that took place were incredibly easy, but we cannot discount the overwhelming, and sometimes oppressive, power of the military institute, as reflected in our political literature.

We seem to be neglecting the power of legitimacy vis-a-vis the legitimacy of power. The legitimacy of the presidential institute enabled President Gamal Abdel Nasser to topple Field Marshal Abdul-Hakim Amer, the most influential Minister of Defense in Egyptian history. Nasser also dismissed Shams Badran, the former head of the intelligence apparatus, only a few hours after he had been appointed following the June 1967 Naksa [Six Day War]. This was also the case with President Sadat when he dismissed the Ministers of Defense, Information, Intelligence and Interior in a single stroke. President Mubarak also acted similarly when toppling Field Marshal Abdul-Halim Abu-Ghazala despite the enormous popularity he enjoyed among the armed forces. Yet even though all Egypt’s former presidents came from a military background, the government did not act as a Junta, or a military council in the Turkish or Latin American style. Perhaps SCAF’s recent attempt to act in this manner – by issuing constitutional declarations and then forming the Supreme Defense Council to enact decisions through its purely military majority, regardless of the president’s opinion – has stripped the council of its legitimacy, and given the President the opportunity to use his power of legitimacy to overthrow the old guard.

The fact is that Egypt’s military presidents have always gained legal and civil legitimacy, which has granted them the strength to confront the armed forces at testing times. Perhaps, the gross exaggeration of the military institution’s influence, regardless of its true size in Egypt’s political, social and economic life, means we are amazed when the Egyptian political arena produces a scene like what we have witnessed over the past few weeks. However, the story is yet to be completed, and Egypt is still rife with numerous developments. Yet, at present, Egypt has transformed political power into a civil entity, and what remains is for the Egyptian people to decide what to do with it. Will the civilians be better than the military leaders before them, or will we see an embodiment of the proverb “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”?