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September 14, 2010

The Military and Succession in Egypt
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

Thanassis Cambanis had a very interesting story over the weekend in the New York Times (in which I am quoted) on the Egyptian military and the looming issue of presidential succession (yes, I know, it has been looming for some time now). The story describes the stakes for the military in the succession process and discusses how the military might fit into various post-Hosni Mubarak succession scenarios.

In the piece, Issandr el-Amrani, a sharp observer of Egyptian politics, states that “[t]he military is seen as the only institution that is able to block succession in Egypt.” But gaming out what the military would and, as importantly, could actually do is difficult. It is not at all clear that they could in fact block a succession scenario, specifically, a scenario that involved the ascension of Gamal Mubarak. In the story I argue that “[i]t’s an open question how much power the military has, and they might not even know themselves.”

The role of the military in Egyptian society has changed dramatically since the days of the Free Officers movement and Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. The thing to remember is that Egypt’s military has not been involved directly in political affairs in years. The last high profile military man, Field Marshall ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazaleh, was removed from his post as Defense Minister in 1989, in a move that was seen as a preemptive action against a potential political rival.

Furthermore, the military role in governance is diminished. In 1966, Sid’qi Suleiman led a government filled with active-duty military officers. These serving military men held key portfolios and occupied half the cabinet-level positions. As such, in 1968, the leftist historian Anouar Abdel-Malek could confidently describe Nasser’s Egypt as a military society. The current cabinet of 33 formal ministers includes only one active-duty military officer, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense (Lt. Gen. ‘Omar Suleiman, often seen as a potential presidential successor, is a minister without portfolio).

It is hard to pinpoint the parameters of the military’s power within Egyptian society at this juncture. Yes, it is the most respected and coherent organization in the country, but Egypt does not fight wars anymore and the military is not involved in the day-to-day of politics. And, it has not been overtly involved in a presidential succession since 1952. While Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were both military men, they were hand-picked as vice-presidents by the president. There was no real process for the military to be involved beyond the sort of informal vetting that might have taken place internally prior to the their appointments. And it is also worth remembering that both al-Sadat and Mubarak were seen as weak figures with no broad popular legitimacy at the time they assumed the presidency, and, yet, the military regime did not attempt to block the ascension of either man to the post.

Along with its distance from politics, the military has also been co-opted by the regime through patronage and perks; the story portrays a military establishment perhaps placated through lucrative business deals and interests, in contrast to the all-pervasive role of the military in earlier eras:

The beneficiary of nearly $40 billion in American aid over the last 30 years, the Egyptian military has turned into a behemoth that controls not only security and a burgeoning defense industry, but has also branched into civilian businesses like road and housing construction, consumer goods and resort management.

In short, this is not Pakistan, or even Turkey, where overt military interference has brought down civilian governments through pressure and coups and replaced them with military dictatorships. While there are no civilian institutions or traditions to guide the succession process, there is, similarly, no institutional memory of political meddling by the Egyptian military. Egyptians hardly remember President Anwar al-Sadat decked out in his military finest – such trappings are no longer part of the state’s choreography - let alone an intrusive gatekeeper role for the military.

In Egypt, power has become increasingly centralized and concentrated in a system of one-man rule. With this backdrop in mind, it is worth asking whether the military really conceives of itself as a failsafe and the ultimate safeguard of national interests. I suspect that assurances that the military would maintain its privileged position and business interests will be enough to guarantee that the military establishment does not make a bid to dictate the country’s political future.

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