Five years after the Egyptian uprising, the role of the armed forces in shaping events is at once obvious and mysterious as it has been for the last 60. Since Jan. 29, 2011, when residents of Cairo woke up after a day of tumultuous demonstrations to discover tanks and armored personnel carriers throughout the city, the army has been on the streets and in the halls of government nearly continuously. What kind of politics does such an overt military presence suggest?
The conventional narrative of a civil uprising followed by a shaky democratic transition and ending in a military coup fundamentally misunderstands Egypt’s politics. Egypt’s military has been deeply invested in politics for the last half-century. The military, not street protesters, ultimately removed President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11. The military, not civilians, governed Egypt between Mubarak’s removal and the inauguration of Morsi on June 30, 2012. And the military, not civilians, removed Morsi on July 3, 2013. Overthrowing a government and governing through the collective leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are as much political acts as winning elections or stitching together a legislative coalition.
The military’s political role in the republican regime descended from the 1952 coup merits closer inspection. Its power does not only flow from the barrel of a gun, and it is not based upon a supposed economic empire. Over the past five years, the Egyptian armed forces benefited from the two distinct kinds of control over information to retain institutional power. Information asymmetry and narrative control are key to the army’s recent success: Only generals understand the army’s politics, and generals are key to the way Egyptians have been taught to understand their own history. These advantages have allowed the army to fend off challenges to subject their institution to legislative control and transform it into one more government agency rather than the embodiment of the nation.
There is a profound asymmetry in the information available about the inner workings of Egypt’s major political actors. The military and state intelligence services had far keener insight into the internal workings of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the activist community. But even the sharpest and best-connected Egyptian political analysts (to say nothing of U.S. political scientists) have trouble peering into the inner circles of the military leadership. Despite continual rumors about what the army wants and with which political forces it has been allied, civilian politicians have been unable to see its inner workings, let alone control it.
There have been significant conflicts within nearly every institution and social force over the last five years. The military is no different, but it is far more able to protect its internal secrets and block scrutiny of its political dealings. The military’s opacity has broader implications. As an institution, the armed forces has remained intact and united behind its leadership, but its internal workings and even its conflicts remain opaque. It is easy to forget that almost all of the men who served on the Supreme Council of the armed forces when it issued its first communiqué following the removal of Mubarak no longer do so. The officers who oversaw the ouster of Mubarak were not the ones who took down his successor.
Perhaps the best example of an unnoticed inner conflict within the military may be the June 2012 runoff election between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmad Shafiq. The former general was widely seen as the military’s man, running on a mandate to reinstall authoritarianism. But in the wake of his narrow loss to Morsi, Shafiq left Egypt for Abu Dhabi, where he remains to this day. He has been charged with electoral and financial irregularities and is on a Cairo airport watch list. Shafiq was no democratic angel; he promised the Egyptian electorate to restore order with a heavy hand. He does not, in retrospect, appear to have been the favored candidate of an armed forces high command that has not allowed him to return or even facilitated his attempt to create a viable political party.
Shafiq, the former air marshal, must have had keener insights into the personalities available to replace then-Minister of Defense Mohamed Tantawi in August 2012 than the Muslim Brother who, thinking he was increasing his control over the military, appointed the general who ousted him. Shafiq might well have appointed Sami Anan, another air force general and then chief of staff of the armed forces, as commander in chief and minister of defense. But Morsi, misreading the military’s internal politics, removed Anan from office and general (now President) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has kept him politically isolated and impotent.
If asymmetric information made it impossible for Morsi to choose his generals wisely, a different kind of information asymmetry made it easy for the armed forces to claim political authority. Despite its losses on battlefields, the Egyptian army has shaped a narrative of itself as the able defender of national sovereignty and security. This narrative has been shaped by academics as well as the military and has been tirelessly repeated in movies, television and print.
Consequently, if the Egyptian army and its internal conflicts are opaque, its popularity is not in doubt. Polling consistently shows that the military remains by far the most popular and most trusted of the political forces in the country. Nearly half of Egyptians voting freely cast ballots for someone perceived as the military’s candidate 60 years after a military coup brought to power a republic governed only by former generals. And this was less than a year after armored personnel carriers ran over several dozen protesters near downtown Cairo. There are many possible explanations for the vote, including a widespread desire for security and order in the face of social and economic collapse or fear of a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate. That so many Egyptians preferred a former air force general to an Islamist politician reveals more than how Egyptians balanced a decision between two candidates.
The military’s place within the political realm is testimony to the central role the military plays in the historical narrative of modern Egyptian history. That the military would be important for a country whose modern history is invariably said to have begun with Napoleon’s invasion in 1798 is not surprising. Successive battles — from the naval bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 to the wars with Israel in the mid-20th century — understandably generated popular and elite concern with military prowess. Many histories of Egypt move effortlessly from the creation of an army by Mehmet Ali in early 19th century Egypt through the revolt of Colonel Ahmad Urabi in 1881-1882 against the Turco-Circassian elite and the British, to the seizure of power by the Free Officers and Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. These were crucial turning points in Egyptian history, but the telling conflates the military as an institution with the creation of state institutions more generally.
The military’s narrative reinforces a trend to portray recent Egyptian history as one of military martyrs and heroes occasionally flanked by Islamist victims such as Sayyid Qutb or Hassan al-Banna. This narrative erases civilian politics in consequential ways. To make the military so central to the narrative of modern history, the army after 1952 required erasing the stories of the civilian elite brought to power by a massive revolt in 1919 that forced the British to relinquish the occupation. The tendency to imagine recent Egyptian political history as a conflict over the role of Islam in politics reinforces this erasure of the past. Just as it did in previous historical epochs, the military is now equally busy erasing the accounts of civilians in the politics of the past five years.
Many of the most important events in the past five years — from the dissolutions of parliaments to the creation of new parties to the prolonged wrangling about election rules in early 2013 — revolved around the role of an elected legislature. There is an equally plausibly historical narrative of Egyptian politics over the last century, which would emphasize the role of an elected legislature in politics both as a representative of popular expression and as the ultimate arbiter of government decisions. The most recent constitution formally empowers the legislature in ways that pose a challenge to the executive authority and the officers who control it. The military seems determined for the moment simply to ignore the challenge. It is this narrative which the military seeks to submerge.
Military control of the state therefore rests on key information asymmetries which go beyond the material and institutional power advantages that it enjoys. In Egypt today, the armed forces have moved to prevent reporting and publication that would inform Egyptians about its internal workings or its larger role in the economy or society. Recently, one human rights advocate, Hossam Bahgat, was held for several days for questioning because of an article he wrote. (See above link.) Given the advantage it has gained from opacity and public ignorance, it is not surprising that the Egyptian armed forces view the revelation of information as being nearly as dangerous as overt public protest.
Ellis Goldberg is a professor in the department of political science at the University of Washington.
This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.