Reluctant Egyptian generals unlikely to loosen grip on power

Army’s semi-secret economic empire accounts for up to 40% of the economy

The United Nations, United States, European Union and Egyptian political figures have called for an independent investigation into the deaths of 54 people, comprising 51 civilian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, an army officer, soldier and policeman during clashes at the presidential guard barracks in Cairo.

This was the worst incident, early Monday morning, involving the Egyptian army. The military has attempted to shun direct involvement with protesters since the uprising of January 25th, 2011, that subsequently ended the 30-year Mubarak presidency.

The disproportionate number of deaths has prompted accusations that army and internal security forces overreacted to provocation by armed elements who attacked the perimeter around the barracks protecting it from invasion by Brotherhood backers demanding the release of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, whom they believe is held there. During violence at the same site last Friday, three died.

Constant pressure
Until Monday's incident the army had avoided clashing with Brotherhood demonstrators, despite constant pressure and occasional eruptions of violence.


The army, Egypt's sole dynamic state institution, cannot risk deadly encounters with them because a large number of conscript soldiers and many officers, including Cdr Abdel-Fattal al-Sisi, have Brotherhood backgrounds.

The military's most powerful ally and supporter, the US, has not labelled the army's intervention to depose Morsi a coup. Neither has it condemned the army's role in this latest bloody episode or decided to cut off $1.3 billion (€1 billion) in military aid. This support was granted in 1979 after Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel, a major US interest in the region, and for the most part consists of US-manufactured equipment. Cutting this aid would harm the US as well as alienate the Egyptian officer corps.

Although it has not fought a war since 1973, the army is the world’s 10th largest,comprising professional officers corps, half a million conscripts and an equal number of reservists.

The military threw its weight behind the secular revolutionaries in 2011 and since June 30th because it had no choice.

The 2011 slogan, “The army and people, one hand”, rings in the ears of the military. Once Mubarak had fallen, soldiers recall when parents took photographs of their children sitting on the broad backs of graffiti-covered tanks.

The army had no choice but to provide the muscle to oust Mubarak in 2011. He had become a huge liability and planned to hand over power to his son Gamal, who was unpopular with the military and the people.

This time round, the Brotherhood – which had secured control of parliament and won the presidency – had insisted on majoritarian rule. But it failed to tackle Egypt’s lack of security, fuel and food shortages and economic meltdown, prompting millions of Egyptians to pour back into the streets.

The army’s high command had already faced 15 months of protest against its mismanagement of the transition after appropriating executive and legislative powers following Mubarak’s fall.

When, last August, Morsi seized these authorities, the generals must have been greatly relieved. They were well aware that they cannot
fix Egypt's chronic problems and went back to barracks without offering any resistance.

In exchange, Morsi gave them the defence ministry, control over the military budget and oversight over its enormous semi-secret economic empire, which accounts for up to 40 per cent of the economy.

Separate from society
The army owns land, resorts, restaurants, football grounds and 35 firms manufacturing weapons, pasta and household appliances, bottling mineral water and providing cleaning services. It manages petrol stations and other diverse enterprises. Soldiers and officers live separate from society in barracks and military villages.

Despite of the common drive to oust the Brotherhood from power, revolutionaries and generals do not trust each other.

Revolutionaries fear that the military, which dominated Egypt for 60 years, may try to exercise power through a civilian administration and, once again, obstruct the transition to a fully demo- cratic system. They are concerned also over the close connection between the military and remnants of the Mubarak regime, “feloul”, who continue to be the largest shareholders in the economy and extremely influential on the political plane.

The generals are aware that once a fully empowered democratic civilian government is installed, it could insist on transparency and accountability that has been sorely lacking over the past six decades.

They will do their best to postpone the day of reckoning.