Egypt military retains ‘protector of the state’ image despite faults
CAIRO — The young recruits with rifles and ragged duffels will never see the swimming pools of the officers clubs that line the boulevards of Cairo. They will not profit from the Egyptian military’s network of private business interests. They’ll eat beans and bread and earn about $30 a month.
But they will be respected as men who protect the homeland — from foreign enemies and sometimes from itself.
A military coup in most nations would signal alarm about the country’s future. In Egypt, much of the country cheered. The military stands for the stability many long for amid economic turmoil and political unrest, a role no other institution is trusted to fill.
In the last two years the Egyptian military, spurred by popular uprisings, has forced two presidents from office. The latest, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out two weeks ago.
On Tuesday, Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, was named deputy prime minister and defense minister in an interim Cabinet of mostly technocrats and liberals.
“The Egyptian military has inherited this sense of national belonging,” said retired Gen. Talaat Mosallam, a security analyst. “The majority of Egyptians feel the military watches their back, the thing they can lean and depend on when facing anything, or any authority, including the presidency or the police. It’s the sanctuary for the Egyptian citizen.”
Whereas students and the rich might seek deferments from compulsory service, enlisting is often a poor man’s escape from village life. It instills a sense of loyalty he will carry beyond his days in uniform.
The army is so revered that many conveniently overlook its transgressions. Two years ago, protesters filled the streets against repressive and inept military rule that followed the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But today soldiers are handed flowers through barbed wire.
At least to a degree, the army has learned from that experience. This time it quickly installed respected jurist Adly Mahmoud Mansour as interim president and appointed a liberal economist as prime minister and Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and opposition leader, as vice president for foreign affairs.
Those moves, crucial for assuring international investors that Egypt was on the mend, attracted $12 billion in aid from Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia. They also suggest that despite tanks and bayonets in the streets, the generals do not want to be the public face of power. Egypt’s youth movements, which organized millions of protesters against Morsi, are restive and prone to act against any stripe of authoritarianism.
Egypt’s independence was born of a 1952 coup against the British led by a brash colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was followed by a succession of military men who ruled under the artifice of democracy: Anwar Sadat, assassinated in 1981 after making peace with Israel, and Mubarak, an officer from the Nile Delta who grew aloof during his three decades in power.
In the meantime, the peace agreement with Israel kept the military mostly in its barracks: It has not waged a foreign war since joining the U.S.-led coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1991. It has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid. And its business interests, a parallel economy run by retired and active duty officers, expanded.
Morsi, an Islamist with no army pedigree, became the nation’s first freely elected president last year. He and his Muslim Brotherhood movement had been persecuted by the state for years. But the president’s hubris led him to miscalculate that he could sway the army’s elite, including Gen. Sisi, the armed forces commander he appointed. A combustible mix of bluster and political naivete, Morsi was doomed by not calming widening economic despair and political upheaval.
“The president was in complete denial,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Atty.
Sisi, a charismatic former head of military intelligence with ties to the U.S., had resisted moving against Morsi for months. But Morsi repeatedly rebuffed the generals’ demands to form a coalition government and amend the Islamist-drafted constitution.
Egypt was slipping toward what the army considered a probable civil war. Attacks between pro- and anti-Morsi camps were intensifying while the army was battling Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and along the Suez Canal. Morsi added to Sisi’s concerns over national security when he tacitly supported clerics’ calls for Egyptian men to join rebel fighters in Syria.
The president’s mishandling of the economy was also jeopardizing the military’s business interests, which include enterprises involving televisions, cigarettes, olive oil, fertilizers, bread, underwear, contracting and rodent control. Analysts suggest that military-run businesses, which developed over the years as the army was granted a wide degree of autonomy, account for at least 10% of the economy.
The threat Morsi presented to national security and the generals’ financial investments resulted in a military ultimatum in late June. Morsi continued to ignore the army’s demands, declaring in a July 2 speech that he would die defending the legitimacy of his office from a “deep state” network of army and police agencies.
With the air of the father in a patriarchal society, Sisi announced the next day that Morsi “did not meet the demands of the masses.”
The military “did not return to political life and rejects completely any attempts to push it back into political life,” said Sameh Saif Yazl, director of the state-owned Al Gomhouria Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “People were in the streets for days and nothing was happening, and it was the people who called on the military to intervene.”
That is the narrative the military prefers. It burnishes the image of protector of the state and sets commanders above the taint of politics. But increasingly some Egyptians worry about what it means for efforts to build a democracy when generals can banish the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s preeminent political power, from politics and detain the freely elected president without formal charges.
Many remember the military crackdowns against demonstrators, the “virginity tests” army doctors administered to intimidate female protesters and the killings of dozens of Coptic Christians when soldiers and thugs attacked a rally in 2011. Even today the military doesn’t like to be questioned: Two reporters for The Times were briefly detained by the army in Suez recently. When one of them, an Egyptian, protested, she was told by a commanding officer, “You don’t deserve to be an Egyptian.”
“We will see whether we are going back to the Mubarak-style of rule or to oppression or to military rule. The coming days will reveal everything,” said Mary Danial, a Copt whose brother was killed in 2011 in clashes. “The military has sided with the people, so that’s a step in the right direction.... At least the attitude now gives us some slight ray of hope. But we are carefully watching them.”
Army spokesman Ahmed Ali said the military, which was criticized for killing at least 51 Brotherhood supporters at a protest July 8, said keeping order on the streets is an uncomfortable role for the military.
“We are trained to kill and fight [a foreign] enemy,” Ali said at a news conference. “This is new to us.”
He played a video showing aerial shots taken from army helicopters of millions of protesters gathering in cities, towns and squares across the country on June 30. Patriotic music played in the background; demonstrators cheered and flashed green laser lights toward helicopters, which flew huge Egyptian flags beneath their wheels.
The intent was clear: The army and the people are one. It was, said Ali, “a message to the world.”
Hassieb is a special correspondent.
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