The Military as Egypt’s Political Master

by Henry Precht

I wonder if it might help to puzzle out where the army might be taking Egypt in the period ahead if we think back to the Iranian revolution and the military’s role therein.

Old timers will recall that as Iran’s revolution gathered force, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, was urged by supporters, foreign and domestic, to apply the “iron fist.” That was taken to mean the army would shoot down large numbers of troublemakers — as many as it takes to restore order. The Shah resisted that remedy, hoping that friends might help him find a less bloody way out of his predicament. He was loathe to leave a legacy of violent repression when his son succeeded him on the throne.

I argued in the State Department against relying on the iron fist. First, the military’s senior leadership, in general, lacked the talent or fiber to manage a brutal crackdown. They had risen through the ranks because of the one quality the Shah most valued: loyalty. In the absence of an active enemy, they had grown soft behind desks and in parade reviewing stands. There were, to be sure, a few exceptions — a few younger men mainly in the second rank, who might wield an iron fist. But the Shah didn’t entirely trust them. The air force chief, General Mohammad Khatami, for example, might have been one, but he had died in a hang glider accident — which some voices suspected was not, in fact, an accident, despite his marriage to the Shah’s sister.

Now let’s turn to the Egyptian army, a truly professional force, well trained, carefully selected and generally enjoying good morale. Egypt has fought more than five wars since 1948 and the army was plainly essential to the nation’s security. (Very different from the peaceable pre-revolution Iranian army — just as the present Revolutionary Guards are different from the Shah’s troops.) Widely respected and dear to the hearts of Egyptians, the army has been generously pampered, becoming a separate economic and social state within the state. From Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser onwards, senior Egyptian officers filled most of the top civilian government jobs in Cairo and the provinces.

That tradition has faded a bit in recent years as business and academic appointees replaced generals in the cabinet. Times change. The army leadership began to look inward after its own interests. Few generals now on duty have experienced, or expect to face, combat.

Still, national honour adheres to the officer corps; Egypt’s Free Officers Movement, after all, created the republic. The Egyptian on the street affords them respect, particularly in comparison with the run of old and new civilian politicians, who are often deemed corrupt or incompetent. I doubt, however, whether the current crop of military brass has the imagination, other political skills or relevant background to manage with subtlety the tricky weeks and months ahead. Shooting and jailing, no problem, they come naturally; wheeling and dealing in back rooms are an unfamiliar foe on a strange battlefield.

Will the senior corps remain unified as stress builds? The Iranians didn’t. Will they take guidance from the Americans? The Iranians were reluctant to do so without guidance from the Shah. Some Egyptian generals might; others will resent foreign meddling.

Neither Iranian nor Egyptian officer corps have seen themselves as Turk generals do, the ultimate protector of the inheritance from Ataturk and the constitution. There is no national ideology that conferred on Iranian and Egyptians a similar authority. Yet the Egyptian top brass earned praise for the way it engineered the removal of Hosni Mubarak and, by liberals and ancient regime remnants for the removal of Mohamed Morsi. It is a reputation that could fade quickly depending on events.

So much for a comparison of the two senior officer corps. In combatting iron fist-adherents in the Washington bureaucracy during my Iran days, I also argued that the draftee ranks were either (1) from the lower classes, twin brothers of those devout demonstrators whom they were supposed to shoot across the barricades or (2) technically trained, modern men who had been enlisted to cope with the sophisticated gear the Shah was acquiring. Below the officer ranks, the Iranian and Egyptian services are similar in origins and how they are treated. The modern men, it seemed to me, would, sooner or later, begin to think for themselves and some would conclude the Shah had no future. The Iranian draftees and noncoms, I thought, would in due course lay down their arms, follow the dictates of their religion and switch from the Shah to Ayatollah Khomeini. Right on both counts in Iran. Right also in Egypt? We shall see.

Before too many weeks pass we shall see how cohesively the new masters of Cairo in uniform hold together and how skillfully they can manage the nation during bitter strife. I am not sanguine.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.


One Comment

  1. Well, the military are putting ‘liberals’ into top jobs.

    But how it’s going to work is another matter. I myself
    had hopes for Morsi. I think that he had to try to
    establish authority, that it was right to do so,
    but he failed. One notes that the USA
    was “watching” and obviously
    talking to generals.

    [ US deep government hates and fears
    the Muslim Brotherhood, more than anything
    else .. because they are moralistic and
    ‘Islamic’. ]

    The Israeli “gros mot” on this is that Arabs aren’t
    good enough for democracy (which is lovely coming
    from a place that practices apartheid), but Egypt may in
    the end come up with something interesting.

    However. Democracy is not all that it is cracked up
    to be, as Germany (and Canada more recently), have
    experienced. We are sure that Morsi & Co. are not going
    away. Interesting to watch. Perhaps something along
    the Iran lines. Thank God that the monarchies
    gave them enough money to get by on,
    although that itself quite hateful
    to think upon.

    We’re a long way from Sunday.

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