Aided and Obligated: The Egyptian Military, a Network Coup and its Aftermath

There is really little left to say on the Egyptian army and its involvement in politics. We may still, however, attempt to ponder some possibilities for rupture from the old practices and relationships and discuss what may now seem continuities. One may begin by saying that since July 2013 a carefully crafted, sophisticated post-coup plan to prop Egypt up and thus help consolidate the new regime has been put into place. The United States (as well as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) deployed the full familiar arsenal of assistance at its disposal after the July 3rd coup d’état.  This standard assistance package, really a legacy of the Cold War, included calling the event a ‘restoration of democracy’ rather than a coup, the resumption of economic and military aid, diplomatic assistance through high-level visits and allowing the perpetrators of the coup to speak in global platforms such as the United Nations General Assembly. Concomitantly, discursive support was extended through the idea of a ‘good coup’, similar to how the role of militaries in the Middle East was legitimized in the 1950s and 60s through the idea of ‘modernizing armies’. In the meantime, the external assistance for Egypt has not been ‘duty-free’; while vital food subsidies are cut and taxes increased, the Suez Canal is being enlarged, housing projects for the poor are being designed, and plans to open new factories and install Internet connections in the Egyptian metro have been announced. A new civil service law is being passed to reduce the weight of the state sector, open things up and create a climate in a country of eighty-million plus people conducive to global financial investment. It appears that what could not really be realized by Mubarak and his cohort is now gradually being done by the new regime dependent on external assistance. The regime is trying to satisfy global (as well as regional) financial expectations in return for lifeline assistance while trying to deliver to the domestic populace in order to consolidate their authoritarian regime at the same time.

The regime is trying to satisfy global (as well as regional) financial expectations in return for lifeline assistance while trying to deliver to the domestic populace in order to consolidate their authoritarian regime at the same time.

A point of crucial importance for the mid to long-term is how relations between President Sisi and the military will evolve. Although they may have emerged from within the military, Egyptian presidents have always been careful to cultivate the military-as-institution since the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952. They actively supported and encouraged the army to penetrate into the economy and state bureaucracy for their acquiescence in return, though the depth of this penetration waxed and waned. The military still remained a political force to be reckoned with, however. From Abdel Hakim Amer during President Nasser’s time and General Mohammad Fawzi during Anwar Sadat’s rule to Abd-al Halim abu Ghazala during the Mubarak era, Egyptian presidents have faced rivals to their power only from within the military. In that struggle between presidents and generals, General Amer ‘committed suicide’. When Sadat eliminated General Ahmad Badawi, one of the seven defense ministers during his rule, the incident [had] no explanation except Sadat’s fear of the influence of the charming and good-looking man.” After dismissing Ghazala, who was gaining popularity within the army and the society, Mubarak reached safety with Marshall Tantawi. President Sisi and the military-as-institution (and the police as well) may seem to maintain a frictionless relationship at the moment. Truly, “the military is now completely vested in the success of the Sisi government.” Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether their positions will separate at some point and whether President Sisi will still feel that the only threat to his power is from the military and that he, therefore, has to be vigilant.

The Army as a Smart Actor

Officers are calculating agents, very much open to adapting to new circumstances, building new alliances, and employing new sidekicks to accomplish their task. This is inevitable for political armies because coup-making is a deadly business, more so in cases of failure. That is to say, political armies are clever enough to know that the classical character of the Cold War coup d’état belongs to the past. It may no longer enough to ‘dispatch one officer, no more (even a lieutenant), onto [state] television and radio studios to deliver a communiqué on your behalf’ as recounted by Field Marshall Ghazala as regards his opportunity to take over from Mubarak during a police mutiny in 1986. There is a different and more effective way with a civilian-actor tweak to it to stage a coup d’état in the 21st century. It may no longer be enough for a military to act on its own initiative and then expect to receive ‘hosannas’ from civilian spectators. Civilian actors must be mobilized to give a democratic flavor or façade to the entire edifice of a coup d’état. As a commentator pointed out,

this last coup [July 3rd] was not a classical coup as happened in 1952 in Egypt because this one was not carried out behind a shroud of secrecy, army was not alone in deciding for the coup, and the military did not directly take over the power after ousting the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s policies helped the military in making the coup since civil and religious powers were attracted to the military. ‘[…]’ (italics added)”.

Admittedly, much like the old times, Egyptian tanks rolled in the streets, much blood was spilt, government buildings were surrounded and coup leader Abdelfettah al-Sisi went on TV to announce the coup—all trappings of old-style coups. “However, the choreography [and actors] of this coup… was unusual ‘[…]’ As he [Abdul Fattah Al Sisi] replaced Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood with a transitional government, he was flanked by the Shaikh of Al-Azhar university, the leading Sunni Muslim authority; the Pope of Egypt’s sizeable Coptic minority; Mohammad Al Baradei, Nobel peace laureate and leader of Egypt’s liberals; and youthful activists who had brought down the army-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in 2011”. This makes it all the more necessary to follow which think-tanks, NGOs and journalists the military’s money is flowing to and what sorts of person-to-person meetings occur between the generals and political parties, civil society, and religious leaders.

Much like the old times, Egyptian tanks rolled in the streets, much blood was spilt, government buildings were surrounded and coup leader Abdelfettah al-Sisi went on TV to announce the coup—all trappings of old-style coups.

Unwavering American Connection

There is little chance that a coup d’état, including those that may come from the junior ranks (as in Turkey in 1960 or Greece in 1967), will surprise the US anymore. For here too micro-level, military-to-military contacts, established through military training programs such as International Military Education and Training (IMET) enter into the picture. American professional military education programs are so well designed that they really allow a  thorough rapport and access between the two militaries (including the Pentagon connection). As the American Ambassador to Egypt (1983-1986) Nick Veliotes said, “the young soldiers who come here from foreign countries to train really love it. And our military goes all out, in ways that the civilian side of the government can only marvel at – the respect, the friendships, the hospitality, the sense of inclusion that they get from their military colleagues. Overseas, they’re terrific. They are respectful of and sensitive to their counterparts.” This does not translate into automatic subservience to Americans, but at the least it allows military friendships and rapport, which allows Americans to put themselves in a position to give signals to the coup wannabes. These programs eliminate the possibility that an unknown Egyptian officer may stage a successful coup d’état.   

There is a hard structure within this relationship set up from the time of Camp David as well. While professional training is expected to gradually socialize military officers of friendly nations to western norms and principles at the individual level, more so to the status quo to be observed in the regional and international system, hard military assistance creates dependence on American military aid and grants, which in consequence increases the costs of the breakup of the relationship. As former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner (1986-1991) argued, “. . . you needed to end the Soviet military equipment phase of the Egyptian Army if you were going to have them anchored in with us as a strategic partner.” The July 3rd coup d’état marks as much the deepening of the dependent relationship between the US and Egypt as it is a symptom of it.

Hard military assistance creates dependence on American military aid and grants, which in consequence increases the costs of the breakup of the relationship.

Unlikely Disengagement

The history of ‘army and politics’ in Egypt belies concepts such as ‘disengagement’ or ‘withdrawal’ found in the literature. The fact that more and more political armies form a strategic network with civilian actors to stage a coup d’état today means that disengagement can only occur if the entire network withdraws, which is unlikely. Internal scandals such as corruption do not provide the opportunity to push the military back in Egypt either. These political armies lose face only when they lose war. Military defeat has been the only time the people have questioned the military.  Only after military blunders such as the ’67 defeat against Israel have ordinary people seen that ‘the uniformed emperor had really no clothes’ and no fighting capacity. The implications of this are clear: a) Given the fact that the region itself can no longer offer much inspiration for change or may help build any local capacity for true democracy and that the US and Europe will continue to feel the conflict between secularism and democracy, the will and demand for change will come, again, from the inside. b) The pressure for political pluralization will only come when/if the US and Europe understand that weakening the political power of the armed forces in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere is in their best interests. They must understand that military coup d’état and extremism and instability are interrelated. Supporting a military coup d’état and its corollary military regime in order to counter the “Da’esh death cult” is contradictory. It is the diplomatic, military and economic support that outsiders extend to an authoritarian regime that adds to the extremist narrative they say they intend to counter.

Decades of experience with post-coup military assistance tells us that aiding military governments will leave the security actors even more deeply in the system.  There is no reason to assume that external actors in the west are not aware of this.

For powerful external actors, starting with the US, to follow a course of corrective action, they must first give up atavistic rationalizations for their post-coup aid. The argument that post-coup assistance may provide external actors with political leverage to exert pressure on a military government to restore democracy must be left in the bygone age in which it belongs. Robert Keeley, former American Ambassador to Greece, said the post-coup aid to the junta “will play into their hands by acquiescing in their assumption of power. What may look to us like exercising influence over the government will look to the Greeks like working hand in glove with it.” When the issue of resuming aid to the colonels’ junta after the 1967 coup in Greece came up, a political counselor at the then American embassy said that “don’t operate on the delusion that you are doing this as a way of encouraging democracy because that is just false.” Decades of experience with post-coup military assistance tells us that aiding military governments will leave the security actors even more deeply in the system.  There is no reason to assume that external actors in the west are not aware of this.

Under similarly despairing circumstances after the ‘takeover’ by General Ayub Khan in Pakistan sixty years ago, Frederic P. Bartlett, the Counselor at the US Embassy in India and later Director of the Office of South Asian Affairs, Department of State, had written to the US Ambassador in India that,

“It seemed to me that the takeover meant that in one more country, and a country which was a good friend of the United States, the light of the democratic ideal had been snuffed out… Our belief in democracy as a way of life for mankind had to give way to the stark realities of our own immediate national security interests. Yet, I argued with myself that in the longer term battle for men’s minds we would be at a disadvantage if we could not offer with heartfelt conviction the democratic ideals which lay behind our Declaration of Independence and to a lesser extent our Constitution. “Faith in stability” is not an appeal to lift mens’ souls and to insure dedicated self-sacrifice if necessary.”

It will be a pity to find in American archives a similar conversation on 2013 ‘takeover’ in Egypt between two American diplomats in thirty years’ time from now. However, no doubt, by then, ‘faith in stability’ will have long ago lost its appeal to the peoples of the region.

1 “Egypt army ‘restoring democracy’, says John Kerry”, BBC, 1 August 2013.

2 Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans, “Coups and Democracy” British Journal of Political Science 44(4), (October 2014), pp 799 – 825, p. 820; Ozan O. Varol, ‘‘The Democratic Coup D’etat”, Harvard International Law Journal 53, 2 (Summer 2012),

Nabeel Fawly, ‘Mısr Min Dawlah al-Shurtat Ila Dawlah al-Jaysh’ Aljazeera Net, http://www.aljazeera.net/home/print/6c87b8ad-70ec-47d5-b7c4-3aa56fb899e2/533d60ef-f522-4f2e-82fb-08e41381e6a4#4

Abdel Fattah Barayez, ‘More Than Money on Their Minds: Generals and the Economy in Egypt Revisited’, Jadaliyya, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/22023/more-than-money-on-their-minds_the-generals-and-th

Hazem Kandil (2014) Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt. London: Verso, p.179

6 Khaleed Dakheel, (2013) Suqut al-Ikhwan wa Maahum Seqatat Liberaleyyat Bashawat [The Fall of the Brotherhood and the Fall of Pashas’ Liberalism W]. Al-Hayat 27 July (http://alhayat.com/Details/536626)

7 David Gardner, ‘Egypt’s Generals are not Alone in Setting Back Democracy’, Financial Times 4 July 2013, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d9f029c0-e42d-11e2-b35b-00144feabdc0.html

8 The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, Ambassador Nicholas A. Veliotes, http://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Veliotes,%20Nicholas%20A.toc.pdf, p. 155

9 The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, Ambassador Frank G. Wisner, http://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Wisner,%20Frank%20G.toc.pdf, p.52

10 R. Hrair Dekmejian, Egypt Under Nasir: A Study in Political Dynamics (New York: State University of New York Press, 1971), p. 254

11 ‘Ambitious Men in Uniform’, 3 August 2013 http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21582564-generals-who-deposed-muslim-brotherhood-are-keener-power-they-let

12 Michael Fallon, ‘As Egypt celebrates the new Suez Canal, Britain stands in solidarity’ 6 August 2015, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentP/4/137079/Opinion/As-Egypt-celebrates-the-new-Suez-Canal,-Britain-st.aspx

13 Robert V. Keeley, The Colonels’ Coup and the American Embassy: a diplomat’s View of the breakdown of democracy in cold war Greece (Pennsylvania The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), p. 100

14     http://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Blood,%20Archer%20K.toc.pdf, p. 36

15 Letter From the Director of the Office of South Asian Affairs (Bartlett) to the Ambassador in India (Bunker), Washington, October 27, 1958, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960 Volume XV, South and Southeast Asia.

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