To kill or not to kill: Army and politics in post-revolution Egypt

Egyptian military has not been a loser in the transition period.Why is it coming back with a vengeance?

Intimidation and repression tactics have been the modus operendi of Egyptian politics [Reuters]

Since the January 25 revolution, the military establishment has made a comeback to the forefront of the Egyptian political scene. Between February 2011 and December 2013, a period of 34 months, military entities ruled in 22 of them, either in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) or by directly appointing a president. Even during the period of elected President Mohammad Morsi’s rule, the military was one of the principal decision-makers in the country [Ar].  

Military coups against elected institutions are usually followed by a wave of brutal repression. Egypt is not an exception. However, in the post-coup environment, the levels of repression and bloodshed are unprecedented in its modern history.

The number of victims killed by security forces in less than 7 hours on August 14 in Raba al-Adawiyya and al-Nahda Squares exceeds the number of victims of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s two-day massacre in Abu Selim Prison in June 1996 (1269 victims), and Napoleon’s massacre in the process of storming al-Azhar Mosque in 1799 (around 600 deaths). The Abu Zaabal massacre [Ar] in which 38 anti-coup political prisoners were killed inside a prison transport van, exceeded the number of victims of a 1957 massacre committed by Nasser’s security forces in Tora prison.

Repression is not cost-free. Army generals understand that, especially after seeing the unhappy end of Qaddafi, and General Omar al-Bashir’s name on international blacklists. If the military was either ruling or strongly influencing/vetoing policies of elected governments, then what explains the decision to stage a coup and the repressive follow-up? Political science can offer a few explanations.

Rational actors… really?

Yes, mass murder can be rational. Terrorism studies, deterrence theory and even criminal psychology reflect that possibility, sometimes quite conclusively. Terrorists, in most cases, are by no means insane, they may even be surprisingly normal. Rational explanations for state and non-state political violence exist. Morality aside, the benefits of repression simply outweigh the costs of accommodation/inclusion in the calculation of the generals. If a group of them can suspend a publicly approved constitution; dissolve an elected parliament; arrest an elected president; kill, injure or detain thousands who oppose these measures and get away with all of that, why would they compromise?

But the military was by no means a loser in the 2011-2013 transition process of Egypt. It not only had multiple reserved domains of power under President Mohamed Morsi, but also, these domains were constitutionally legal. In the 2012 constitution, approved by almost 64 percent of Egyptian voters, the defence minister had to exclusively be a military officer (Article 195), and the National Defence Council (NDC) would have a majority of military commanders (Article 197). This effectively gives the military a veto over any national security or sensitive foreign policy issue. Article 198 allows military tribunals for civilians “when a crime harms the armed forces”. Legal immunity from civilian courts was granted and there were no public indicators showing that civilian politicians are capable or willing to move against the military industrial complex, a black-hole in the Egyptian economy.

“He (Morsi) did not really harm us… I mean the stuff we (officers) care about like the salaries, the benefits, the pensions were all well,” said a mid-ranking army officer three months before the July coup. Given the benefits, the costs, and essentially high probability of a bloody aftermath, the rational actor model does not help explain the July coup, unless there was a miscalculation of the scale, the scope, the intensity, and the tenacity of popular anti-coup reactions.

‘This is how we do it’

Another explanation for the military-security’s behaviour and decisions is through organisational routines. Each institution has a set of “standard operating procedures” or SOPs: formal and informal rules according to which actions/reactions are determined. In the case of confronting anti-status-quo protests, deploying a standard set of intimidation and repression tactics has been the main SOP in the last six decades of Egyptian politics.

The January 2011 revolution posed a serious challenge to that model, not only in terms of physically challenging coercive institutions, such as the Central Security Forces (CSF) or the Military Police, but also in terms of accountability.

“What happened with the police in the last two years engendered a new environment. The police officer would stand with you [army officers] to a certain point. He can shoot, use bombs, tear gas, shotguns. But if someone dies, he may be tried [in court]. This [trial] should never happen again. And the protesters now [should] know it,” said General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in a leaked video [Ar].

The statement reflects a “new environment” where the old SOPs cannot be utilised due to potential accountability. It also reflects the fact that a period between the removal of Mubarak (February 2011) and the re-takeover by the army in July, did not witness any thorough revisions of the SOPs. Organisations can be a captive of their own internal rules, training and procedures. When asked about the necessity of killing over 50 protesters around Tahrir Square on October 6, a policeman replied: “Look, this is how we used to work for two decades. We played by the book [followed SOPs] in October…it is a bad book but there is no chance of replacing it.”

Outbidding and factionalism

A third explanation has to do with factionalism within the military and the security establishments. This is a classic post-coup divide, between two pro-coup coalitions: one that advocates the eradication of the ousted, and another that advocates limited inclusion and controlled repression of the ousted. The erradicadors versus dialogistas (eradicators versus dialogists) is a classic saga in the history of Latin American juntas. It also took place elsewhere – in post-coup Greece (1967), Turkey (1980), Sudan (1989), and Algeria (1992). That divide happened as well in Egypt following the 1952 coup. One faction of the junta wanted a return to constitutional parliamentary democracy, even if pro-status quo parties returned to power via elections. Another faction, the victorious one, wanted unchecked military rule, and repression of potential challengers.

Civilian oversight, even within a weak institutional arrangement, is also psychologically problematic.

By August, major parts of the pro-coup factional map were clear for analysts and observers. “He was the most hard-line, the most absolutely unreformed,” one Western diplomat told The New York Times. He was speaking about General Mohamed Farid el-Tohamy, the current head of the General Intelligence Apparatus and a strong advocate of the crackdown on the Raba’a al-‘Adawiyya and al-Nahda sit-ins. “He talked as if the revolution of 2011 had never even happened,” said the diplomat. Among that faction, there is a strong belief that Field-Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawy, the SCAF leader, was “lenient” in dealing with protesters. Therefore, the lesson learned from Mubarak’s and SCAF’s days is to crackdown harder.

On the dialogist side emerges Mohammed al-Baradei, a civilian politician who co-plotted the coup with the junta and then called for ending repression following a second major massacre of anti-coup activists in Nasr Road on July 27. It is important to mention that eradicators and dialogists categories by no means correspond to a military-civilian divide. In almost all of the aforementioned cases, including Egypt, civilian figures have been equally “eradication-ists”, including journalists [Ar], politicians, clerics and religious figures, businessmen as well as youth activists.  

Superiority complex

There is of course an irrational, psychological explanation for the coup. Since the 1952 coup, a superiority complex has been steadily building within the military. General Gamal Hammad, a member of the Free Officer and the writer of the first communique of the 1952 coup, mentions [Ar] that newly ruling officers had become “crazy with power” once they gradually realised that their “words became laws… and that they became the new masters of Egypt”.

Having a civilian declaring himself as the “supreme commander of the armed forces” was unacceptable for many military commanders, not only because “civilian” is believed to be an inferior category but also because an “ikhwan” is believed to be a low subcategory within the civilian category. “Every time he [Morsi] says I am the supreme commander of the armed forces, I want to hit him with something,” said an army officer back in April.

Civilian oversight, even within a weak institutional arrangement, is also psychologically problematic. This was reflected in General Sisi’s comments in a leak [Ar] while meeting with military officers: “We haven’t seen the end of this…there is a coming parliament, it may ask questions, and I wonder what will we do about that…we have to prepare to confront this without negatively affecting us.”

The aforementioned decision-making models are not of course mutually exclusive. They, sometimes, come in combinations. They can help explain military decision-making behind taking risky and bloody routes.

Dr Omar Ashour is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics and Security Studies in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements and From Bad Cop to Good Cop? The Challenge of Security Sector Reform in Egypt.  Dr Ashour was a consultant for the United Nations on security sector reform and demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants.

Follow him on Twitter: @DrOmarAshour