A new political dilemma for Egypt’s ruling military

June 2

A poster of Egyptian ex-army chief and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stands near a building in central Cairo on May 26. (Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)

The election that was to provide confirmation of former Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency in the aftermath of his removal of former president Mohamed Morsi did not go as well as expected. Sisi won more than 95 percent of the votes against an essentially token opposition. Turnout was considerably less than Sisi had called for, although estimates range from 25 to 40 percent of the electorate. Sisi and his fellow generals appealed to Egyptians by claiming that they are engaged in a battle against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the threat of terrorism, as well as to jump-start a failing economy that threatens the country’s stability. In reality, the most important threat to military rule is the military itself, and it has taken important but little-noticed steps to eliminate that threat.

There are two basic realities to consider to understand the army’s dilemma. First, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that effectively rules Egypt today is very different from the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that took power in Egypt in 1952. Second, one of the most basic lessons of Authoritarianism 101 is that there are two dangers to prolonged military rule: Splits in the officer corps and the personal ascendancy of one general over the others.

The Free Officers were a small minority of colonels and their RCC was a fortuitous collection of officers of diverse rank primarily united by a common political antipathy toward the old regime and some personal loyalty to Gamal Abdel Nasser. SCAF, by contrast, is made up of the topmost hierarchy of the officer corps and it is the unity of that corps – rather than any ideological vision or personal ambitions – that it is most committed to protect.

Decades of scholarship on authoritarian regimes show that military dictatorships end when dissent among officers, between “hardliners” and “softliners,” overwhelms hierarchical discipline. These differences emerge from conflicts about a return to civilian rule and incapacity or corruption within the military itself. Military dictatorships also end when one officer transforms military dictatorship into personal rule.

The Egyptian armed forces have had three bitter conflicts with Egyptian presidents, and in each the armed forces were subjected to humiliating political losses. In two of those cases, the country also suffered crushing military defeat. In the 1960s, conflict between Nasser and Field Marshal Abdul Hakim Amir brought Egypt to the greatest military disaster of its history and the occupation of the entire Sinai Peninsula. Nasser and Amir had been friends and fellow officers before the 1952 coup, but by 1967 they were engaged in a debilitating power struggle that had already weakened the army as a professional fighting force. The uncertain circumstances of Amir’s reported suicide did not bring an end to episodic demonstrations against the regime between 1968 and 1971. Now forgotten, these were the most important instances of mass political opposition to the regime until 2011.

For Egyptian public consumption, the 1973 war is described as a significant victory. Elsewhere, 1973 is widely understood to have begun with a successful surprise attack that was never followed up by a successful military campaign and in which the Egyptian Third Army was nearly destroyed after Israeli troops encircled it in the desert. Memoirs and interviews show that many members of the general staff not only subscribed to the second view but bitterly resented then-President Anwar Sadat’s decisions to subordinate the pursuit of military victory to political maneuvering. That Sadat was one of the Free Officers only increased their bile.

Former president Hosni Mubarak, a former air force general, assumed office after Sadat’s assassination. Like Sadat, Mubarak had little experience with ground combat. His defense minister and commander in chief of the armed forces, Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala, was widely believed to be a likely challenger for power in the 1980s. Abu Ghazala had wide support among the ground forces and many people viewed him as a capable and charismatic figure who could replace the colorless and weak Mubarak. Instead, Mubarak summarily ousted Abu Ghazala, who retired under a cloud and died in relative obscurity. Mubarak then proceeded with policies Sadat had initiated after 1973 to marginalize the army within the Egyptian state, enhance the role of the Interior Ministry and the police, and create a dependent but reliable business elite. This was the army’s third political defeat, although it was less consequential at the time for the country as a whole.

Contemporary Egyptian history, in short, suggests that the armed forces have at least as much, and possibly more, to fear from alternate authoritarian rulers as from democratic ones. It is in this light that not only the language of the 2013 constitution should be read but, more importantly, the 2014 constitution and some of the associated legislative and administrative changes.

The 2014 Egyptian constitution gives SCAF the right to choose the defense minister for the next two presidential terms – a total of eight years. This was widely seen as a kind of icing on the cake in regard to the 2013 constitution, which already stipulated that the minister of defense would not be civilian but had to be chosen from among the ranks of military officers. Why was it so necessary to ensure this additional grant of power for a government that had already come to power through a coup? The new constitutional provisions were not designed to safeguard the military from a democratically elected president but from a charismatically empowered officer who sought personal power over the state, including the military. In other words, the additional language became more pressing, rather than merely decorative, once it became clear that the next president would not necessarily be a democratic transient but potentially a lengthy tenant.

Law 18 of 2014 promulgated by President Adly Mansour in March amended previous statutes regarding the minister of defense. It reinforces this supposition. Although most of the statutory language simply adapts the constitutional wording, there are two major specifications not in the constitution. First, the minister of defense must have served at least five years as a general (liwa) and second he must be from a “major service.” In other words, no colonels (such as Amr) hurriedly promoted to general will be named minister of defense.

Membership in SCAF, the body that must accede to the appointment of a minister of defense, has also been enlarged and regularized by another statute issued by Mansour. SCAF is to meet every three months and a quorum has been established. In reality, the role of SCAF has now been made subject to law and its increased size is likely to make it somewhat unwieldy. Nevertheless, legally and constitutionally it will be far more difficult for a president to limit the role of the army in high politics, and it will also be more difficult to use differences within the army to marginalize the generals. Whatever disagreements they have can be (although they may in reality not be) thrashed out in meetings.

The armed forces have much to fear from a president who seeks personal power. The most powerful presidents have been those with one of two sources of power apart from the armed forces: The popularity that comes with charismatic presence or populist policies on the one hand, or the political support drawn from particular social and economic groups. Nasser had popularity and was able to dominate the armed forces for at least a decade; Sadat was able to develop some institutional sources of support apart from the armed forces. Mubarak accomplished what neither Sadat nor Nasser could: He furthered the creation of a new business elite and a weak but real political organization (the National Democratic Party) to express a broad array of interests that allowed him independence from the armed forces.

The 2013 coup may have exorcised the danger of a political party such as the Muslim Brotherhood subordinating the armed forces to its control, but it left other problems in its wake. Sisi himself, even if he came from the ranks of the military, was another kind of threat. Beside the Scylla of institutional independence (Mubarak and even the Muslim Brotherhood), Sisi threatened the Charybdis of charismatic independence. All that singing, dancing, chocolates and underwear: The Sisi mania.

That the turnout was low is another cause for relief. Sisi may worry and the broadcasters, flacks and intellectual hangers-on moan that Egyptians are now refusing to give Sisi their voices. But within much of the general staff, there may now be quiet jubilation. Sisi, whatever he had hoped six months ago, will not be able to free himself from SCAF or his fellow generals. They did not campaign for him, and unlike him, they can look forward to another election in four years in which, if necessary, a more plausible military candidate can challenge him.

Ellis Goldberg is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington.

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