Egypt’s Transition from the Military Republic to a Pluralistic One
Just before taking an unofficial oath of office in front of supporters in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s first civilian and freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, spoke of the struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood, from its creation in the 1920s to the decades of persecution under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, to the last decade under President Hosni Mubarak.
President Mubarak most likely gave orders to break the Tahrir Square’s demonstrations in February 2011. If the Egyptian military had opened fire on protestors in Tahrir Square then, President Mubarak would still be in power today. So why didn’t the army try to save the power structure it had dominated for sixty years?
For the best part of its first hundred years, Egypt’s modern army was under foreign command. The nationalisation of the army, which effectively started with the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, marked the opening of the army’s ranks to the country’s middle class, which continued over the past 70 years to be the military’s social base. The army’s 1952 coup overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in the name of the people, and gradually with Nasser’s immense charisma and popularity turned the coup into a revolution, fully supported by the country’s middle and lower-middle classes. Unlike in Turkey or Iran, the army was not at a distance from the people, was not billed as a guardian of the state or a guard of the revolution; it was positioned as an integral part of the society.
Maintaining the link between the army and the people was also a strategic objective of the regime that has ruled Egypt since 1952. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak were trusted sons of the military establishment, effectively representing it in ruling Egypt. And so it was crucial to achieve and sustain the people’s consent to that political system. Integrating the military into the country’s middle class made that possible. In Egypt, military hospitals and many social services are open for the public at subsidised prices; the army’s construction and contracting arms are amongst the best in the country, working on major infrastructure projects; almost every middle class family in Egypt has a member who works in the army or one of its various sprawling entities.
Although aspects of a distinct institution are very conspicuous with regard to the Egyptian army, for example the almost secret budget of the military, Egypt’s army is not militarist. Since the 1973 October War, the army did not carry out a complicated military engagement: it did not plan, design, launch, and execute a major military operation. For more than 35 years, the army was effectively confined to its barracks.
President Mubarak’s macro-political choices over the past decade played a role as well. The ascent of the capitalist elite of the then ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to the upper echelons of the regime throughout the 2000s, and the meteoric rise of the President’s son Gamal, diluted the army’s influence. The regime’s capitalists asserted their power over major economic sectors, and especially those that affect Egyptians’ daily life. That meant the regime’s military face of the past half century was steadily being replaced by one representing a distorted form of liberal capitalism. The rise of that capitalist elite also denoted a subtle but crucial change in President Mubarak’s own positioning. Instead of being the military establishment’s representative in ruling Egypt, he became the ultimate authority in a new power structure dominated by some of the country’s most powerful financial centres. He and the elite surrounding him tried to buttress that new ruling system by enshrining constitutional legitimacy to it; Gamal Mubarak focused his efforts on the NDP; his associates concentrated on securing a pliable parliament. They rigged the 2005 and 2010 elections which came across as conspicuously flawed. The people loathed the capitalist elite; under no circumstances would constitutional legitimacy have stacked up. The military was now at a significant distance from President Mubarak and his power circle whose credibility and legitimacy were evaporating.
And when the moment came that the survival of Mubarak’s presidency depended on the military opening fire on more than a million people representing vast sections of the society, the army resolutely refused. President Mubarak fell; and his power structure, lacking any foundation, crumbled. The country’s first republic was passing away. In a peculiar way, the success of the 1952 military regime in integrating the army into the society became the undoing of the military’s direct rule over Egypt.
And that is why the army should hand over power to an elected civilian authority. The military is sophisticated enough to understand that the fall of the Mubarak regime marks the end of Egypt’s first republic. It also recognises that the momentum that the 2011 uprising gave rise to is an unstoppable tsunami of political energy, backed by extremely young demographics and by vast sections of the country’s wide middle classes, that no wise institution would want to oppose. A new political reality, the beginnings of the country’s second republic, will emerge – with two main characteristics.
First: Egypt’s political landscape will be fragmented for the foreseeable future. Young Egyptian liberals created the momentum that stirred the revolution. Different civic opposition groups augmented the numbers and provided logistical support. The Islamist movement – different variants and at their centre the Muslim Brotherhood – provided organisational skills and tenacity in the face of the regime’s violence. The uprising was the work of different players and proved larger than the sum of its parts. This means that no revolutionary legitimacy could be conferred on any single political entity or institution in the country. Also, not a single political player in Egypt today has a solid structure or a viable narrative that would give it a real chance of solely dominating internal politics. This fragmentation will prove very healthy. Different players will compete to widen their constituents and promote their ideas. Financial power and the ability to disseminate ideas will prove advantageous for some political players, but with time, others will close the gap in the possession of such resources. The country’s politics will be much more competitive than it was in decades.
Second: We will see a very interesting socio-political struggle between liberalism and Islamism. In the short-to-medium run, the Islamists will enjoy the easiest ride. The thirty-five-year rise of Islamism as an identity in Egyptian society, coupled with the internal changes that the Islamist movement has undergone over the past two decades, have produced moderate variants that present their thinking in modernrhetoric. This will give the Islamists an edge over their rivals, and they will come to play a leading role in Egypt’s next parliament. But with time, and as the internal divisions and ideological struggles within the Islamist movement materialise, the liberals will gain prominence. Gradually, different liberal groups – not necessarily the ones that are currently scuttling to assemble themselves into parties – will manage to propose political projects that correspond to the aspirations of Egypt’s wide middle classes. This interaction will enrich the Egyptian society. The second decade of the twenty first century will be immensely important for Egypt – and interesting for all observers.
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