|SCAF has been unwilling to give up power – prompting Egyptians to return to Tahrir for new protests [GALLO/GETTY]|
Washington, DC – Just one year ago, the burning question facing Egyptians was whether the presidency of their country would be transformed into an inherited post. Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle had worked tirelessly and carefully over a period of several years to position Gamal Mubarak to succeed his aging father. The question of popular opposition to this move was never given much consideration, but the possibility that the Egyptian military could intervene against the installation of the younger Mubarak, who had not come from within its ranks, weighed heavily on the minds of both father and son.
Sure enough, a similar scenario appears to be playing out during the current state of political upheaval in Egypt, albeit under radically different circumstances. Having ridden the wave of popular revolt to oversee the Mubarak family’s removal from power, the current leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has since obstructed the transition to democratic rule. Next July marks the 60th anniversary of military rule in Egypt, and if the military leadership has its way, it will continue to govern the country at the expense of the civilian population.
But the crisis being witnessed in Egypt and across the Arab world is not simply one of an important power centre in society attempting to cement its position of privilege against the rising tide of popular rule. Rather, the role of the military in the Middle East has a unique and storied place throughout the modern history of the region.
Having suffered successive military defeats at the hands of expanding European empires in the late 18th century, the Ottoman Empire believed in the importance of reforming its traditional source of strength, a formidable military force that had attained the power to make or break governments in Istanbul, govern conquered lands and amass its own wealth. Early attempts to undercut the military’s authority cost one Ottoman sultan his life.
In the face of continued European expansionism and exposure to Western liberalism (a paradoxical combination, to be sure), Ottoman leaders introduced a program of reform across all governing institutions with the expectation that they would produce a rejuvenated empire capable of repelling foreign threats to its territory and domestic agitation for national self-rule. Educational reforms and technological innovations were placed largely in the hands of the new military.
Before long, the reformed Ottoman military had restored its position of privilege in society. The turban had been replaced by the fez and the traditional system of military feudalism had given way to the prestigious Military Medical College and the lucrative railway system, but the favoured status remained intact. So much so that by 1908, efforts by liberals and nationalists to establish a constitutional government were upended by a military coup that ruled the Ottoman Empire until its final days.
Similarly, in Egypt, the Albanian ruler Muhammad Ali and his descendants aggressively pursued the development of a modern standing army trained and led by European advisors. Though it became a source of upward social mobility for some Egyptians, the new army also served to highlight the glaring inequality between foreigners and the indigenous population. When the discontent finally reached a boiling point in 1879, the country mobilised against the abuses, with Egyptian peasants, labourers and women playing a central role in the ensuing rebellion.
Military rule or modernisation?
However, it was a colonel in the Egyptian army, Ahmed Urabi, who ultimately assumed the leadership of the movement, an example of the paternalistic outlook that local militaries throughout the region would adopt with respect to the occasional popular outburst. For their troubles, the Egyptians were met with an invasion by Britain and an occupation that would last seventy years. In fact, as European colonialism spread across the Middle East, the relationship between colonial powers and emerging nations was often defined by the ability of Western empires to coopt local militaries and use them to control indigenous societies.
Consequently, as the primary target of modernisation initiatives and the point of contact with colonial regimes, most modern Arab states were founded with the military at the centre of their governing institutions, often enjoying a free hand to bypass constitutional restrictions and civil society. Even in conservative monarchies such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Western-sponsored armies formed the basis of support for newly installed kings, an arrangement that would fend off calls for representative rule for decades.
In countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the military played a more decisive role in determining the outcome of the movements for independence. These institutions have since professed themselves as the caretakers of the nation, the defining feature of the country, even at the expense of popular sentiment and civil society.
In 1952, Egypt was on the verge of widespread civil unrest by social movements that had repeatedly expressed their rejection of a failed liberal parliament, a discredited monarchy and a foreign occupation. But when the Free Officers acted to overthrow the country’s political system, they were just as concerned about the revolutionary forces within the depths of society as they were about the oppressive colonial enterprise. In essence, Gamal Abdel Nasser and his comrades believed they were saving Egyptians from themselves.
Two years later, Nasser consolidated his control following a violent confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the most formidable movement in Egyptian society, an event that proved to be the death knell for independent social forces, as the military proceeded to manage all aspects of life in Egypt.
Similar coups in Iraq and Syria over the years have led to a deeply rooted notion – endorsed by imperial interests – that views the stability offered by a politicised military as a crucial bulwark against the radicalism that is seemingly intrinsic to Arab societies. The resulting military states have acted as ideological black holes: swallowing the popular political trends of the left and right, all while suffocating the population to prevent an effective civil society from flourishing.
Coupled with that has been the rise of a military-industrial complex in some of the largest countries in the Arab world, further entrenching these armies within a corroded political system. Initially launched as a plan to allow national armies to repair and replace their military hardware without being overly dependent on superpower assistance, this military industry has since expanded to control public utilities such as water and electricity, manufacture a wide array of products, from automobiles to household appliances, and even pursue land development and tourism projects. Supported in part by private capital, these militaries have developed a massive stake in the continuity of a particular economic and political order.
Challenges for revolutionaries
Far from being a “state within a state”, as they are often described, the militaries in countries such as Egypt and Syria are in fact deeply embedded within the core institutions that affect every aspect of their respective societies. It is for precisely this reason that the armies of Yemen, Syria and Libya brutally suppressed popular cries for the end of the old order, while in Egypt the SCAF has stymied all efforts to dismantle the regime. Any true revolution would necessarily have to rescind the privileges enjoyed by the military, and in fact, rebuild the state on an entirely new foundation.
This is the real challenge facing the revolutionaries. The army has maintained its monopoly on the use of force internally, and has even manipulated its power to develop a parallel system of justice, routinely trying civilians in military courts. In Egypt, the SCAF has prosecuted more than 12,000 Egyptian civilians since January – many more than were tried in military courts during the Mubarak era.
When Ali al-Silmi, the deputy prime minister of the SCAF-appointed government put forward a document of guidelines asserting continued military privileges under a new constitution, it confirmed the worst fears of the youth of the revolution. In fact, it was this brazen call for no accountability or oversight for the military budget that set off the latest round of mass protests, Tahrir 2.0, as it has been termed by some.
Internationally, as the protector of Western interests, the military continues to be the primary focal point of foreign policies from Moscow to Washington. That the United States would go forward with military aid and weapons sales to Egypt following last week’s appalling attacks against peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square is disappointing but not surprising. Notwithstanding Obama’s call for the transition to civilian rule, the US has not shown a willingness to depart from its deep commitments to the Egyptian military. However, recent reports that dock workers at Suez refused to permit the entry of a seven-ton shipment of tear gas canisters is a sign of things to come.
Egyptians are in the process of redrawing the figurative borders of their state, which requires a realignment of the military’s role and the expansion of a civilian government reflective of the popular will, irrespective of the narrow interests of the military and its foreign sponsors. As the emerging political class (and its Islamist contingent in particular) has insisted that it would not challenge the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, the underlying assumption that has gone unstated is that this has always been a treaty between the Israeli state and the Egyptian military. A reconstitution of the state, with a new basis for its legitimacy, would necessarily require that all elements of its policy would be subject to the authority and oversight of a government born out of that process.
In recent months, many observers have called for the “Turkish model” to be implemented in Arab states, often as an attempt to place hard limits on the power of Islamic parties to redefine the nature of the state. But this call ignores the fact that Turkey has been plagued with repeated threats to its democratic institutions through frequent military coups throughout the 20th century, a practice that has only been reined in during the last decade. The resilient protestors in Tahrir Square have not sacrificed their lives in order to grant the military the power to be the eyes and ears of the revolution.
If “the people and the army are one hand”, as the popular refrain goes, the SCAF has used its other hand to choke the life out of the revolution while preserving its own vaulted status. For their part, the Egyptian people have demonstrated perseverance, maturity and a deep understanding that their longstanding protectors have actually stood in the way – blocking the path to liberation.
Abdullah Al-Arian received his PhD in History from Georgetown University. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University, where he specializes in Islamic movements.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.