Respect for army fades as people judge it to have failed on reforms


ANALYSIS:While an ageing field marshal still holds power in Cairo, the Egyptian army’s relationship with the population could prove decisive, writes PATRICK BURY

ON FEBRUARY 11th, when Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi became the de facto Egyptian head of state following President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the 76-year-old was crowning a military career that has spanned some 55 years and many conflicts.

An infantry veteran of Egypt’s wars with Israel in the Sinai in 1956, the six-day war of 1967 and the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Tantawi has been Egypt’s most prominent military leader for the last 20 years, holding the posts of both Mubarak’s defence minister and supreme commander of the armed forces.

Moreover, as a result of his command of Egyptian units in the 1991 Gulf War, Tantawi and his number two, Gen Sami Hanan, enjoyed a warm relationship with the US over the years. Given that the week’s events across Egypt have left 40 pro-democracy protesters dead and 1,000 injured, how long this relationship and Tantawi’s hold on power can last remains to be seen.

Yet, in recent Egyptian history, the military has always been at the core of political life, and it is due to this tradition that many of the protesters on Cairo’s streets had initially, albeit reluctantly, accepted the ageing generals’ stewardship in the transition from Mubarak’s rule.

Egypt’s first president, Mohamed Naguib, seized power with support from a clique of disgruntled army officers in 1952. Both presidents Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat were former army officers, and both relied heavily on the military throughout their tenures. The frequency with which these leaders committed Egyptian forces to battle further enhanced the prestige of the Egyptian armed forces in the eyes of the wider public and cemented their privileged role in Egyptian society.

However, as the mass protests in Tahrir Square yesterday have shown, much of the public’s long-held respect for the Egyptian army has vanished. The army leadership is seen by protesters as a clique of out-of-touch and incompetent Mubarak lackeys who have failed to introduce the necessary economic reforms as the country slides into ever deeper debt.

Fuelling their fury is the fact that the army is extensively involved in Egypt’s economy, controlling up to 40 per cent of it through business interests in sectors as varied as infrastructure and construction, resort management and consumer goods, and backed up with a vast property portfolio.

Most importantly, Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have failed to reflect the spirit of democratic change envisaged by protesters back in February. SCAF has been rushed and undemocratic in its reform of the constitution and has used military courts against some 12,000 civilians. Its use of the despised Mubarak-era emergency laws to quell unrest has further alienated elements of the population who see the army as using any excuse to cling to power and protect their interests.

Since coming to power, the army leadership has sought to hold on to its position by slipping additional clauses into the constitution that would protect its economic privileges and maintain its hegemonic political position.

Egypt’s armed forces have never been transparent, but the continuing secrecy surrounding the names of general officers and the size of the army has become far more important now that it is the institution running the country.

The final step that brought the protesters into the streets was a proposed secret clause that would have kept the defence budget secret and separate from the national budget.

How hard the Egyptian army is willing to fight to maintain its privileged position remains to be seen.

Certainly there is a pattern of initially cracking down hard on demonstrators, followed by a climbdown when faced with overwhelming public opposition, and this is likely to remain the case. Yesterday’s announcement that former prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri has been asked to form a new cabinet suggests, at the very least, that the SCAF is playing for time.

However, if they tenaciously decide to resist any erosion of their power base, the Egyptian armed forces are well-equipped to do so. They are the largest and one of the most powerful in the region. With about 340,000 soldiers in the army alone, and almost half a million reservists, the armed forces are equipped with a mix of older Soviet-era equipment and newer, more capable French, British and American equipment such as the M1A1 Abrams tank and the Mirage 2000 jet fighter. Seeing some of these platforms deployed against the Egyptian people would certainly be food for thought in Paris, London and Washington.

Such a scenario seems unlikely for one critical reason: well over half the Egyptian army consists of conscripts. These are males aged between 18 and 49 who serve between one and three years and are drawn from wider Egyptian society. There are up to 220,000 of them in Egypt’s army alone, well over half the army’s total strength, and this does not include the less reliable reservists.

This, and the fact that conscripts’ basic training and relatively high degree of affinity with the wider population make them less effective as counter-revolutionaries, should ensure the Egyptian army will not prove as ruthless oppressors as Gadafy’s and Assad’s forces.

What is more likely in the event of a severe military response in Egypt would be a split in the army along patronage and populist divides. This would not bode well for Egypt as a whole.

Patrick Bury, a former soldier in the British army, is the author of Callsign Hades, an account of his time in Afghanistan. He has worked as a researcher for Nato. The views expressed here are his own.