Ahmed S. Hashim
Dr. Hashim is an associate professor at the Rajaratnam School for International Studies and academic coordinator/research manager at ICPVTR, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.1
The February 2011 overthrow of one of the most entrenched autocrats in the Arab world, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, following a three-week-long, relatively bloodless people's revolution, was a stunning event in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.2 Its effects will reverberate throughout the region as much, if not more, than the Nasserist Revolution of 1952 that brought the army to power. A once somnambulant Egypt may be catching up with the more vibrant societies in the region such as Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
The stance of the Egyptian military during the 2011 revolution sealed the fate of the Mubarak regime.3 However, the political and socioeconomic role of the military is harder to assess in Egypt than in any other Middle Eastern country. For one thing, the subject is taboo. Despite attempts to question the military's size or budget, its affairs are never subject to debate or censure.4 More important, it is very difficult to get specific information out of the officer corps. They do not welcome interviews. It was exceedingly hard to draw Egyptian officers into any meaningful discussion during my time at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. There is little or no fraternization between American and Egyptian officers. Despite the numerous exercises that the U.S. military has conducted with its Egyptian counterpart, U.S. officers know little about their opposites. Americans are not allowed to contact Egyptian officers by phone or email except through the Ministry of Defense in Cairo. Given the size, historical role and influence of the Egyptian military, literature on the subject is thin. Major book-length studies generally have said very little on the role of the military in Egyptian political and economic life, even though the military has constituted the backbone of the republican regime, since its founding in 1952. However, there is sufficient data to examine this black box. The primary purpose of this paper is to address the political role of the Egyptian military in these last few years, particularly in the wake of the events of 2011.
This study is divided into two parts. Part I is a historical analysis of modern Egyptian civil-military relations from the nineteenth century to the end of the presidency of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Part II, which will follow in a subsequent issue, consists of an analysis of civil-military relations under Hosni Mubarak and the political role of the armed forces during the revolution of 2011 and the post-Mubarak period, when the army took direct political power, pending a revamping of the political system. Part II will also advance some scenarios concerning Egypt's political evolution, in which the military is bound to play an important role.
Military power has played a major role in the country's domestic and foreign matters since ancient times. In the words of one historian:
To the student of Egypt's ancient history, the pervasive influence of the army in the country's current politics comes as no surprise. Throughout the pharaonic era, from the foundation of the Egyptian state (ca. 3000 B.C.) to its absorption into the Roman Empire (30 B.C.), military might played a role at least as important as hereditary succession in determining who ruled the Nile Valley.5
Egypt's modern political and military history begins in the early nineteenth century, when a ruthless and ambitious Albanian soldier in the Ottoman army, Muhammed Ali, emerged as the quasi-independent ruler of Egypt.6 Ali was determined to turn his new fiefdom into a military and regional power independent of the Ottomans, the sovereign power at the time. Though his plans for modernization and industrialization were deeply flawed, at the height of his power, Muhammed Ali succeeded in turning Egypt into the strongest military power in the Middle East.7 By 1830, the army had 100,000 troops, the navy 25,000. The officer corps consisted of Turco-Circassians in the senior ranks, foreign officers from the West in the middle and technical ranks, and "native" Egyptians in the middle and junior ranks. The enlisted personnel consisted overwhelmingly of peasants, the fellahin. Muhammed Ali's third-most-important task after the construction of a modern army and imposition of unpopular conscription was the creation of a reliable and loyal officer corps that would obey him and subordinate itself to his political dictates.
In 1832, at the battle of Konya in the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire, this army managed to defeat an imperial force three times its size. Muhammed Ali's threats against the empire alarmed the great powers, who quashed the Egyptian ruler's dreams of grandeur, compelling him to drastically reduce the size of his armed forces. The military shrank to a small and inept force dominated by a politicized senior Turco-Circassian officer corps that was intricately tied to the monarchy. Rulers Said (1854-63) and Ismail (1863-79) attempted to revive Egyptian economic and military power, but the effort to enlarge the military was hindered by Turco-Circassian control of the officer corps, which feared that an increase in the size of the army would dilute its power. The representative of the major European powers also wanted Egypt to pay off its enormous debts to European creditors and not spend funds on "luxuries" it could ill-afford. Egyptians of native or Arab background found it difficult to get promoted from the ranks into the officer corps; those who were already officers found the ranks above colonel completely closed off. This created considerable tension within the army. The political and economic situation in the country by Ismail's time led to a crisis ending in his replacement by Tewfik, an event paralleled by increased Western influence over the political process.
The blatant Western interference in the political life of the country generated considerable discontent in all sectors of the Egyptian populace, particularly among provincial notables, pro-constitutionalist urban intelligentsia and the middle ranks of the officer corps. The latter, who formed a secretive organization under Colonel Ahmad Urabi, resented the humiliation of the country by external powers, the weakness of the monarchy, and the domination of the top brass by Turco-Circassians and Albanians. In 1840, a British official, Sir John Bowring, noted the paramount position of the foreign, Osmanli, elite over Egyptian society:
The situation of the Osmanlis in Egypt is remarkable; they exercise an extraordinary influence, possess most of the high offices of state, and, indeed, are the depositories of power throughout the country.… They are few, but they tyrannize; the Arabs are many, but obey.8
According to one source, there were only four "native" Egyptian colonels in the army at the time, one of whom was Urabi.9 Under Tewfik, matters rapidly came to a head and, as a result of considerable pressure from the army and its civilian allies, the Egyptian ruler was forced to institute a parliament, the Assembly of Delegates, and named Mahmud Sami al-Barudi, a close personal friend of Colonel Urabi, as prime minister. Barudi appointed Urabi to be war minister. Urabi purged the top 40 Turco-Circassian officers, promoted 400 native Egyptians, granted commissions to 150 non-commissioned officers, and raised salaries across the board.10
The military-dominated nationalist government had no chance of survival because it threatened Anglo-French strategic and commercial interests. The British invaded Egypt and defeated its army at the battle of Tel el-Kebir in July 1882, sweeping away Urabi's government. At his trial, Urabi highlighted his grievances:
In 1880 the Egyptian army was composed of twelve infantry regiments. In 1881, during the ministry of Uthman Pasha Rifqi, it was decided to reduce it to only six regiments. The practice in Egypt was to tend to discriminate by race. And so all the promotions, decorations, and rewards went to those of the Circassian race.… After this faction came that of the Turks and others who were not Egyptians, along with those of mixed origins. Thereafter came those Egyptian by race; they were neither promoted nor indeed employed except by necessity, only when others were not available.11
Urabi's complaints did not save him from exile, and for the next 70 years, Britain controlled Egyptian affairs. Tewfik was forced to disband the army, and the British took over and trained a small, anti-nationalist constabulary.12 An army of 80,000 men was reduced to 6,000 by 1882. It grew to 16,000 by the early 1900s, commanded by a senior British officer; indeed, 10 percent of the officer corps was British, and they commanded down to battalion level as late as the 1920s. British control prevented the army from playing a key role in the competition among feuding social forces and classes.
Egyptian nationalists strove mightily but without success to wrest control of the army back from the British. In 1936, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty granted Egypt greater freedom, though it allowed Britain to maintain thousands of troops in the Suez Canal and to re-occupy the country if stability broke down. The treaty also granted Egypt control over its military for the first time since 1882.13 However, through the maintenance of a military mission in Egypt, the British still controlled training, dictated the level of arms supplies, and required Egyptian officers to attend British military academies for advanced training. By 1937, the army had grown and was slowly transformed from a constabulary into a mobile but still lightly armored conventional force. In 1936, the armed forces consisted of 398 officers and 11,991 NCOs and enlisted men. About a year later, the numbers rose to 982 officers and 20,783 of other ranks.14 The increase in the size and relative sophistication of the armed forces required an increase in the officer corps. Until the 1930s, officer recruitment and "promotion in the armed forces under the monarchy had been determined more by birth and girth than by merit."15 In 1936, the Egyptian government took the momentous step of opening the Royal Military Academy to the sons of members of the middle and lower-middle classes.16 The new entrants were by no means from a destitute social background, since families had to pay the relatively steep tuition of 60 Egyptian pounds per annum.
The new entrants came from social strata that viewed the monarchy as corrupt and subservient to the British. This group began to take an active interest in the country's political life, which was extraordinarily lively and characterized by a variety of competing ideological currents, ranging from the liberal constitutionalist, to the leftist, Marxist, Islamist and fascist. Each group offered the promise of a solution and a radically different Egypt.17 The prestige and power of the monarchy had all but collapsed as a result of the defeat of Egyptian arms in the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In fact, in the view of many observers, Egypt was in a "pre-revolutionary" situation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The officer corps was now politically conscious and neither insulated from nor indifferent to the declining political and socioeconomic fortunes of the country. The weaknesses of the military, reflected in the rampant nepotism and corruption within its senior ranks and the appalling mistreatment and poverty of the enlistees, was galling to the nationalistic officers. A British commentary on the eve of the overthrow of the monarchy concluded the following:
Basically, the Egyptian Army has been built up not so much for the defense of Egypt as for the bolstering of Egyptian prestige and pride, and its senior officers are appointed on the basis of their political leanings rather than their military qualities. Many good officers have been dismissed,… the senior ones for becoming too popular and the juniors for being too independent.18
Many officers knew that change was needed. A remarkable event took place in 1951, when assembled senior officers meeting with the king managed to publicly insult him, with little consequence to their careers. The officers were not united behind the monarchy, nor did they support radical change. There was a group of very senior officers who owed their careers to the patronage of the palace. A larger inchoate bloc of officers who knew that something needed to be done in the country was actively plotting against the regime. A third group, mainly officers from middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds were involved in a wide variety of conspiratorial groups. Some of these groups were disorganized and included officers with competing ideological visions who could not bear the weight of these differences. One group of conspirators, who came to be known as the "Free Officers," emerged in the late 1940s. It was made up largely of officers of mid-level rank. Many had fought together in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, where they developed a distaste for the monarchy and their superiors. One of these officers was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had the following to say about them:
They were overfed, lazy and selfish, and they spent their time eating, drinking, carousing, smoking hashish and engaging in many different forms of tyranny and corruption. They were fawning and subservient to the British Military Mission and a disgrace to the uniform they wore. They spent money that belonged to the Egyptian army on food and drink for themselves.19
This was repeated in a long cover story about him and his regime in Time magazine in 1955, where he continued: "They were ignorant, of bad character and lived only by fawning on their superiors.... I was shocked at the treatment of the soldiers."20 Nasser's distaste for his senior officers and the monarchy was shaped to some extent by his experiences in the disastrous 1948 war, when Arab forces were unable to prevent the emergence of the state of Israel. While it is historically inaccurate to argue that the Free Officers revolution was motivated only by the experiences of junior and middle-ranking officers in that war, they did play a significant role.21 The conspirators who made up the Free Officers came from different ideological backgrounds. Some were leftists, while others had dabbled in patently fascist groups. Some were close to the large and influential mainstream Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Nonetheless, they were all nationalistic in orientation and despised the ancien régime. More significantly, unlike other short-lived conspiratorial groups, the Free Officers managed to maintain their cohesion, eschewed ideological splits despite the wide gulf that separated many of them, and moved into active plotting against the monarchy during 1951-52. On July 17, 1952, the Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in a daring coup. They proceeded to abolish the monarchy and set up a republic.
The Nasser Years
As soon as the Free Officers seized power, they proceeded to purge the top echelons of the officer corps. They installed General Mohammed Neguib, a respected senior officer, as a figurehead. A struggle ensued between Neguib and his supporters, on the one hand, and Nasser, the strongman behind the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, on the other. Nasser won. By 1955, the new regime had defeated its political opponents and consolidated power.22 In the early years, when there was not even a hint of the state socialist measures to come, the officers' regime aligned itself with the vast business and commercial sectors in Egyptian society. The coup plotters were not modernizers and developers. The fact that they became so once in power was accidental; indeed, it was opposed by segments of the officer corps. The Egyptian officers who seized power in 1952 may have had "progressive" ideas, but the institution they emerged from was certainly not a modern or advanced institution. Nor were the officers who seized power in 1952 able to convince the rest of the officer corps of the necessity of radical social transformation and modernization.
Under Nasser, the position of the ruling Free Officers and the military at large in the Egyptian state and society was unquestioned. One analyst of the Nasser years stated, "Ruling power in Nasser's Egypt had a pronounced military coloration."23 An Egyptian observer, Anwar Abdel Malek, referred to Nasser's Egypt as a military society. During the Nasser presidency, the percentage of officers in cabinet positions ranged from 32 percent to 65 percent.24 Between 1952 and 1967, only one civilian ever held a top position in the republic. Of the 65 men who held political positions between 1962 and 1967, 27 were officers. Most of the key ministries came under the control of serving officers — a newly minted breed of technocrats who had received degrees in diverse non-military fields such as political science, law and medicine — or of ex-officers (retirees) or of a large and very professional corps of military engineers.25 Reliance on military men in the top positions reinforced the insulation of the ruling Free Officers from the larger society in whose name they ostensibly ran the country. They were not aligned for any length of time with a social class.
The armed forces were not a monolithic bloc facing the rest of society and ostensibly acting in its name. The situation was vastly more complex and belied the popular myth-making among the regime and political scientists that the military in Egypt represented the vanguard of modernization and development. One could characterize the political system under Nasser as one of the ruling Free Officers and their co-opted technocrats, on the one hand, and the bulk of the officer corps and the armed forces on the other. The military's domination of the political process was further complicated by the potential for a profound rift between President Nasser and his closest friend, armed-forces commander Abdel Hakim Amer. Nasser installed Amer in this position to maintain control over the armed forces. Indeed, from their very first days in power, the Free Officers, who represented only a small fraction of the officer corps, strove to establish control over the military. The problems between Nasser and Neguib revealed the necessity of controlling the armed forces. An Egyptian journalist quotes Nasser as saying:
We cannot leave the army without control….We will all be threatened if we do not establish an effective control over it. You have ascertained that there is a certain malaise which has begun to make itself felt in the units. I would not be surprised if a faction of the army one night carried out our arrest. But the whole army loves Abdul Hakim Amer, and that is why I insist that he be nominated commander in chief.26
Amer may have been a good soldier early in his military career. With the victory of the revolution, however, he was promoted very quickly and without the requisite training or tests. Promotion whetted his appetite for the good life and also provided him with access to political power and the levers of patronage. He adjusted quickly to his new circumstances; military professionalism fell by the wayside. Under Amer, the military essentially operated as a political power center independent of the state. From the very beginning of his assumption of the post, it was clear that Amer was only loyal to himself and promoted only those who showed loyalty to him. An incident in 1954 illustrates the role of Amer as a potential spoiler. At the height of the titanic struggle between Nasser and Neguib, the left-leaning officer Khaled Muhieddin joined the pro-Neguib ranks, bringing with him senior cavalry (light-armored) officers. A spirited debate within the Revolutionary Command Council — the body of Free Officers that ruled the country — concluded that the only way for Nasser to defeat this challenge was to bring the rest of the army under Amer to bear on the cavalry officers. Despite his close personal friendship with Nasser, Amer refused to take sides in the struggle and made it clear that he would "not sanction a civil war between different corps of the army." In fact, Amer threatened to resign: "I cannot remain commander in chief of an army in which orders are given to launch a civil war between different units."27
Amer's tenure as commander met with disaster in the 1956 Suez War, a tripartite aggression by the geriatric imperial powers Britain and France and the brash young nation of Israel, all of whom wished to "teach" Nasser a lesson. This defeat, the first of a series over which Amer was to preside, should have led to a crisis in civil-military relations. Either Nasser could not bring himself to remove his close friend from his position of power, or he felt that the debacle was not Amer's fault — it was a lopsided contest in which Egypt faced far more powerful nations. Nonetheless, by the late 1950s, Amer's strength within the wider officer corps began to worry Nasser, who tried to remove him in 1961. The attempt failed because of a near rebellion on the part of the officers. From then on, the Egyptian president basically decided to indulge the officer corps. Little or no attempt was made to control them by means of security surveillance, the vetting of officers, or ideological indoctrination in the principles of pan-Arabism and socialism — supposedly enshrined in the mass party created by Nasser, the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). The senior officers defeated attempts by the ASU to exert political and ideological control over them. By contrast, Amer vetted the officer corps for loyalty to him. Moreover, he proved adept at providing patronage. The Egyptian journalist Aboul Fath explains:
Officers have their problems, their demands, their wishes. It is Amer who listens to their complaints, resolves their problems and realizes their wishes.… It is this attitude which has avoided for Nasser up to the present many difficulties which the officers would have been able to cause him.28
The years between 1955 and 1966 constituted the zenith of the military's political centrality and power. This coincides with the period when the Egyptian armed forces were at their worst in terms of military effectiveness. Not only did Nasser take care of the officers' corporate economic interests through considerable benefits and privileges, he also recognized that the new regime needed to provide the armed forces with modern equipment and weaponry. As Nasser told the American journalist Cyrus Sulzberger:
The army is a basic factor in Egyptian life. Our revolution was stimulated in the army by a lack of equipment. If our officers feel we still have no equipment, they will lose faith in the government.29
It was not only to enhance the regime's prestige and bring about stability in civil-military relations that Nasser sought sophisticated arms for his military. In the mid-1950s, the British threat to Egypt, embodied in the presence of thousands of British troops in the Suez Canal area, had receded. The threat from Israel, a country with which Egypt had no peace treaty, rose dramatically as a result of Egyptian support for Palestinian guerrilla forces that were allowed to conduct cross-border raids into Israel. Provoked by these raids, in February 1955, the Israelis launched a devastating assault into the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip in which they killed almost 40 Egyptian soldiers. This stunning display of Egyptian military impotence was a major humiliation for Nasser and his new regime. It could have threatened their hold on power if drastic measures were not taken. Unwilling to accept Western conditions for the sale of modern weapons, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union, setting the stage for a 20-year arms relationship.
In entrusting the army to Amer, particularly its development into a modern and effective fighting force, Nasser blundered badly and had to pay dearly. In a major speech on the third anniversary of the revolution, Amer put forward his vision for the future of the Egyptian armed forces:
• A new corps of scientists and engineers
• Firepower-heavy and mobile mechanized divisions
• Large-scale combined arms exercises
• Indigenous arms production
• Improvement of the lot of the peasant conscripts
• Training of officers overseas.
The first new Soviet arms — jet fighters, light jet bombers, artillery, tanks and a variety of naval vessels — looked like a major leap towards modernization in accordance with the wishes of Nasser and Amer. However, Amer did not transform the armed forces so that they could make effective use of the sudden and massive influx of sophisticated weaponry. He eschewed military professionalism for the political advantages and patronage that his position allowed him to accrue over time. He thought the military could have both political power and military effectiveness. The result of the politicization of the officer corps under Amer's stewardship contributed to the catastrophic defeat of 1967. The military became a "state within a state." Nasser's closest confidant, Amer was careful never to use his political capital to publicly or directly challenge the president, but it was becoming clear in the 1960s that the autonomous military was a competing power center. As a consequence of regime propaganda about the military, the myth of the army's strength flourished. Egypt's vaunted ballistic-missile program and defense industries proved to be embarrassing failures, despite repeated claims by Amer and the media that these efforts were transforming Egypt into a regional powerhouse.30
The Egyptian army found itself sent to war in Yemen to help the Republican side against "reactionary" Royalists supported by the despised Arab monarchies and the West.31 This was a brutal "small war" campaign in which the Egyptians, after many false starts, did develop a relatively sophisticated strategy to counter wily Yemeni insurgents. Egypt ultimately had close to 70,000 troops fighting in inhospitable terrain and served by very long supply lines. Egyptian performance was not bad; their logistics impressed Western observers.32 Nevertheless, the war became a quagmire, claiming more and more resources.33 Egypt ultimately failed in its endeavor and suffered severe casualties.
One might have expected this quagmire to create serious rifts in Egyptian civil-military relations. It did not. One-hundred-fifty thousand troops rotated in and out of Yemen over a five-year period of intense counterinsurgency. While Egyptian casualty figures are still shrouded in secrecy, the consensus is that roughly 10 percent of that force was killed, maimed, wounded or did not return. Service in North Yemen, despite the immense risks, benefited both the officer corps and enlisted ranks enormously. Soldiers actually begged to be allowed to serve in that theater of operations because of the tremendous material benefits the government offered. In fact, the war led to the emergence of a privileged and corrupt category of military personnel who enjoyed a doubling of basic pay, the ability to import consumer and luxury goods that were scarce in socialist Egypt and access to low-interest loans to buy Egyptian-made Nasr cars. Veterans and their families had access to better medical care and preferential treatment for placement in universities. At the top of this privileged group stood Amer and his closest cronies, who became wealthy, much to the disgust of the population and the resentment of other sectors of the armed forces, who did not manage to serve in Yemen.34
Egypt's delusions of military power were shattered in June 1967 by the six-day Israeli rout of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Soviets were staggered by the magnitude of the Egyptian catastrophe. Embarrassment over the failure of their weaponry in the hands of their Arab allies made them resolve to seriously train the Egyptians, even if it meant treading on their toes. The catastrophe provided Nasser with the opportunity to clean house within the thoroughly demoralized and despised military. Amer and his power base were removed. Non-political senior officers were given the task of expanding and professionalizing military ranks. However, morale remained at a particularly low level between the defeat in 1967 and 1969, even as the military was being re-equipped and retrained by the Soviets. This created tension in civil-military affairs, particularly evident whenever the Israeli air force had virtual free rein over the skies of Egypt.35 The ability of the enemy to conduct aerial and ground raids with impunity was embarrassing to the high command. The air-force senior staff was purged once again in mid-1969 after the Israeli Air Force demonstrated its ability to fly over Cairo without challenge.36 Nasser felt he had no choice but to call upon the Soviets to take an even larger role in the defense of Egypt.37 The officer corps knew this was necessary, but they were not at all fond of their "boorish" Soviet patrons.38 The Soviet advisers were considered coarse louts who did nothing to hide their contempt for Egyptian military prowess. Moreover, the Soviets had taken over Egyptian bases and acted as if they owned them. Not surprisingly, there was considerable satisfaction, particularly within the air force, when the Israelis shot down four or five Soviet-piloted MiG-21s — part of Egypt's rebuilt air defenses — over the Suez in 1971.
THE SADAT YEARS
When Vice President Anwar El-Sadat took over the presidency in 1971 following Nasser's death, nobody expected him to last long. Sadat did not have Nasser's charisma; equally important, he had no power base. In Egyptian political life, power was to be found in a number of key centers: the Arab Socialist Union under the wily and ruthless Ali Sabri; the Ministry of the Interior and the intelligence and security services headed by Shaarawi Gumaa; and the armed forces, led by Minister of War General Muhammad Fawzi. Sadat faced the determined opposition of all three. This was a combined civilian-military challenge in which the key rival was a civilian, Ali Sabri, whom everybody expected would ultimately triumph over Sadat. This group began conspiring to remove the new president almost from the onset of his rise to power. The Sabri group did not count on Sadat's decisiveness and apparent knowledge of the emerging conspiracy among top members of the Nasserist elite.
Fawzi thought he could swing the army behind Sabri, but he miscalculated on three counts. First, chastened by its politicization in the 1960s, much of the officer corps was unwilling to get involved in a dangerous political gamble. Second, Fawzi had underestimated the power of the presidency and the enormous legitimacy accorded to the person who would constitutionally occupy it after Nasser.39 Sadat had been chosen to succeed the founder of the republic as president, and few members of the political elite were willing to challenge him. Third, Fawzi had not expected Chief of Staff Muhammad Sadiq, a virulently anti-Soviet right-winger, and the rest of the senior officers to stand by Nasser's seemingly ineffectual and colorless successor.
Sadat realized that to surmount the Sabri challenge he needed the officer corps, the final arbiters of power. He met with the officers and appealed to their sense of loyalty, legitimacy and professionalism.40 He also cleverly hinted at the potentially dire prospects for the country and the corps if the pro-Soviet and left-leaning Sabri were to come to power. From the beginning of his presidency, Sadat employed divide-and-rule tactics among the military elite in order to domesticate it. Mohamad Ahmad Sadik was elevated to the position of minister of war after Mohamad Fawzi's demotion for his Nasserist inclinations during the 1971 Sabri affair. Lathi Nasif became commander of the presidential guard. Each new appointee owed his position, and therefore his loyalty, to Sadat, who played off his rivals against one another to prevent them from gaining any autonomy.
Sadat faced numerous challenges as the country entered 1972. The economy was in a downward spiral as a result of the burden of defense spending, the costs of the "war of attrition," and continued Israeli occupation of the Sinai. Riots, demonstrations and criticisms of the government were the norm as Sadat entered his second year as president. However, the greatest threat came from inside the army. In 1972, a middle-ranking officer led a squadron of armored vehicles to the Hussein Mosque in Cairo and proceeded to deliver a vitriolic attack on the government's inability to wipe out the humiliation of 1967.41 This was clearly not an attempted coup d'état, though there were also threats circulating among junior and mid-ranking officers at the time — but the event signaled considerable discontent within the armed forces. Indeed, junior officers had even joined civilian demonstrators during the disturbances of 1972.
It was, however, the top brass that would ultimately cause Sadat considerable trouble. Even though he had gained their support against the Nasserists in 1971, his credentials were not yet established. In 1972, General Sadiq, whose "loyalty" had been rewarded with the post of minister of war, decided to challenge Sadat on several fronts. He began to believe that his status as an original member of the Free Officers entitled him to a key role in decision making. Sadat removed him.
In preparation for war in 1973, Sadat had a pliant army chief in the unimaginative but hard-working and apolitical General Ismail. Rather than engaging the Egyptian president in technical debates over Egyptian readiness, Ismail focused all his efforts on finding the right strategy for the coming war. In the aftermath of that conflict, the president also struggled with Chief of Staff Saad al-Shazli over his decision to cooperate with the United States in peace negotiations with the Israelis. Shazli was replaced by the more loyal Abd al-Ghani Gamasy, effectively ending open resistance to Sadat within the military. Gamasy later became minister of defense. As Raymond Hinnebusch notes, "Gamasi, the very model of the respected non-political professional prepared to defer to the authority of the president, became the key figure in further consolidating the principle of military non-intervention in political matters." No one military officer, much less a bloc, was allowed to gain too much political power. Hence, rather than investing in the institutions they oversaw, elites realized their political survival depended on allegiance to the president. He also greatly reduced their representation in ministries, with only 20 percent of all appointments going to military officers. This effective depoliticization of the military curtailed its role as an autonomous institution and changed the character of the regime.
The euphoria generated by the semi-success of the October 1973 war proved ephemeral. By the mid-1970s, Egypt was in a parlous economic situation. In order to promote reform and modernization, Sadat instituted what was known as the infitah (opening) policy, which required major reforms and restructuring of the economy in order to integrate into the global economic system. The reforms entailed painful measures at home. A reduction of subsidies on basic commodities such as rice, sugar and cooking gas led to mass protests by tens of thousands of people. For two days, "angry crowds of students, workers and the urban poor demonstrated in all the major cities, attacking symbols of state power, conspicuous consumption and Western influence."42 The police and security services failed to contain the riots. Contingency plans were made for Sadat and his immediate family to flee to Tehran and the hospitality of Sadat's close friend, Muhammad Reza Shah, who was to seek sanctuary in Egypt only two years later.
However, in one last-ditch effort to restore control, the government ordered the army to intervene and quash the riots. Minister of Defense Gamasy was extremely reluctant to see the army, whose esprit de corps had been restored by its honorable showing in the October War, act as an internal-security force. Gamasy reminded Sadat of the post-1973 pact by the political leadership that the army would not be used against the civilian population. Gamasy agreed to use the army to restore order only if Sadat were to rescind the cuts in subsidies. Sadat readily agreed, and the army intervened. So uncertain was Sadat of his political position that, when senior officers came to inform him that the situation was under control, the president initially thought they had come to tell him that the armed forces had taken control of the state.
Sadat's infitah policy not only had an economic focus, it also signified a major strategic reorientation in foreign policy and national security. The collapse of the longstanding Soviet-Egyptian relationship came about not long after the end of the 1973 war. Tensions between the Egyptian officer corps and the Soviets had existed for a long time, but these were not the cause of the collapse. Sadat's poor relations with and suspicions of the Soviets, his very transparent desire to reorient Egypt away from the Eastern bloc towards the West, and his claims that Moscow had refused to supply Egypt with significant quantities of sophisticated arms during the war contributed to the deterioration of relations after 1973. The more Soviet-Egyptian relations deteriorated, the less forthcoming the USSR was with arms shipments.43 While the Egyptian military loathed its Soviet patron, Sadat's decision to turn away from Egypt's main weapons supplier was viewed with alarm and could have caused serious rifts in civil-military relations.
The collapse of Egyptian-Soviet relations resulted in a precipitous decline in the operational readiness of the armed forces at a time when Israel and, to a lesser extent, Syria were able to rearm rapidly. This decline affected the armed forces across the board.44 From 1974 onwards, the steady deterioration in Egyptian military capabilities was of major concern to the officer corps, which apparently made clear to Sadat that this was a threat to national security, since Israel was still perceived as the enemy. Indeed, many strategic analysts inside and outside the region, as well as political elites, were convinced that the 1973 war had resolved nothing and that Israel and its major Arab adversaries were bound to fight again sometime in the mid-1970s.45 Egypt was not prepared for the eventuality of another major war.
Sadat fully understood the threat to his own political position from the officer corps and the threat to national security from further military decline. Neither Sadat nor the generals wanted to go back to the Soviets for arms; the cost to honor would have been too great. For Sadat it would have been political suicide, not "merely" a humiliation, though it is conceivable that the officer corps would have been willing to jettison Sadat and submit to Soviet humiliation rather than risk potential defeat at the hands of the Israelis.
From 1975 onwards, Sadat began a frantic search for arms in such disparate places as the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Italy and Yugoslavia.46 By 1979, Egypt had acquired a hodge-podge of relatively sophisticated defensive weapons from a wide variety of sources. These provided merely a defensive capability and did not go far in revitalizing the country's offense, should the tenuous ceasefire with Israel fall apart. Many air-force planes were grounded for lack of Soviet spare parts, and pilots were poorly trained. The air force had to maintain a dizzying array of equipment and aircraft, some modern and some rapidly becoming obsolete.47 Air defense was at 50 percent of operational readiness.48 The officer corps, having spent the half decade since the 1967 debacle imbibing an offensive spirit, had to adopt defensive doctrines and exercises. By the late 1970s, Egyptian national security capabilities were in dire straits.49
Arresting the decline became the most important task during this period, as Egypt continued to fall behind both Israel and Syria. Naturally, what concerned the high command was Israel:
As far as the Egyptian-Israeli military balance goes, we all know that there is a peace treaty between us and Israel and that the balance is essentially based on peaceful relations, peaceful coexistence and neighborliness. However, Israel's high rate of development of its armed forces and its belief that military superiority is an important prerequisite for continuing the stability of peace must be met on our part by efforts to strength our defense capabilities in such a way as to secure peace on the basis of the principle of the balance of power. At no time should military superiority be a cause for hope or a temptation to break or violate the peace treaty.50
Fortunately, Sadat's opening to the West did begin to pay dividends and assuage the officer corps. Major transformations of the armed forces were underway between 1978 and 1981, when Sadat was assassinated. Strategic plans were implemented to change the organizational structure from the Soviet model to that of NATO. The government began to focus on threats to Egypt from parties other than Israel.51 Initially, this ferment did not provide much in the way of supplies, but later, new arms from a wide variety of sources caused considerable "digestion" problems. Nor did most of the officer corps look kindly on Sadat's attempt to reorient the army towards being a minor expeditionary force ready to put out brush-fires in Africa or assist "brother" Arab countries. Following the Yemen debacle in the early 1960s, the officer corps was not too keen on doing "dirty police work" in far-off places. The officer corps did not favor the strategic drift that afflicted the country in the late 1970s. As the British journalist Martin Woollacott noted in late 1978, "For 30 years, the Egyptian Army has been trained, equipped and deployed for war with Israel, as a key is cut to fit a lock";52 it could not easily conceive of a different role.
Sadat's stunning 1978 decision to visit Israel to promote genuine movement in the Arab-Israeli peace process provoked mixed feelings. He received the blessing of the senior officer corps. Cables of support were sent by General Gamasy and the commanders of the Second and Third Armies. These were not mere ritual pledges of support: "They reflect a consensus not only about the professional nature of the armed forces, still heavily geared to Soviet systems but deprived of Russian spare parts and new weapons, but also about the fact that the army would be badly mauled in another conflict with Israel…."53 Officers were tired of Egypt's bearing the overwhelming burden of the Arab war effort against Israel. Some were particularly vocal that it was time that Egyptians stopped dying for the Palestinians and other Arabs. At the beginning of the peace process, officer-corps sentiment may have been similar to that expressed by an anonymous senior officer:
We are not a political army. That is why we achieved the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973. We will not return to being a political army…. We would fight and die defending our national interests, but we have died enough for the Palestinians.… I am an Egyptian first and an Arab second.54
It became rapidly apparent, however, that Sadat's gamble was not the opening stage of a multilateral peace process headed by the most powerful Arab country, but merely an Egyptian-Israeli peace. As this sank in, the officer corps became concerned. For some, peace with Israel was not worth alienation from the Arab world; Western weapons on a massive scale were not yet guaranteed. Egypt, it seemed, was not making peace with honor. This sentiment was particularly rampant among the junior and middle-ranking officers, among whom Pan-Arab, nationalist and mainstream Islamist sentiment was common. Even senior officers like Gamasy were not sure that Sadat was embarking on the right path. Gamasy, along with chief of staff Mohamad Ali Fahmi, was replaced in the late 1970s over opposition to the Camp David accords. Replacing them was a new crop of Sadat loyalists such as Vice President Hosni Mubarak and Minister of Defense Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala. Such generals, completely loyal to the president, became the model for promotion in Sadat's military.
Following the signing of the Camp David accords, the government encouraged the writing of articles on the tangible benefits of the bilateral peace treaty, including the recovery of the Sinai Peninsula and the acquiring of sophisticated Western arms. Modernization of the armed forces became a major concern.55 At the turn of the 1980s, the officer corps was still worried over the lack of adequate arms supplies from the outside. Following the Camp David treaty with Israel and the dramatic deepening of U.S.-Egyptian relations, there was concern that Egypt was not getting the "rewards" of peace, i.e., more sophisticated armaments. This was expressed by Defense Minister Abu Ghazala in 1981. When asked by an American interviewer whether the United States had provided Egypt enough in foreign military sales, he replied:
I think it is not enough. There's a constant problem talking to our troops, who are always asking, "Where is the American equipment?" So I don't think $900 million is enough to re-equip the forces. And now we are in the same state of friendship — we feel now — as Israel, so why don't you give us the same thing? If Israel gets $1,400 million [$1.4 billion], why not give us the same thing?56
The slow speed with which U.S. arms arrived in Egypt continued to be a sore point into the mid-1980s.57 Though this dissipated as the pace quickened and Egypt began to acquire massive quantities of sophisticated U.S. arms, the Egyptian officer corps continued to be annoyed that both Israel and Saudi Arabia were getting even more sophisticated weapons — Israel's with few or no strings attached.
Sadat's presidency came to an abrupt end on October 6, 1981, when he was assassinated by Islamist junior officers during a military parade marking Egyptian successes during the October War of 1973. Vice-President Hosni Mubarak quickly and efficiently acceded to the presidency without mishap. Mubarak knew that one of the key issues he would have to deal with was the rise of political Islamism, in general, and with its penetration of the armed forces specifically.
1 This study, the first of two parts, is a short version of a book-length manuscript — Guardians of the State: The Political Roles of the Egyptian Military from Revolution to Revolution — that is due for publication at the end of 2011.
2 "Bloodless" is, of course, a relative term; between 365 and 400 Egyptians died in the revolution. By way of comparison, the violence in Libya, Yemen, and Syria during spring and summer 2011 took on the form of full-fledged civil war or full-scale repression by the state with thousands of casualties.
3 One of the best studies of recent Egyptian politics is Bruce K. Rutherford, Egypt after Mubarak (Princeton University Press, 2008).
4The New York Times, September 11, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/world/middleeast/12egypt.html?_r=2&re….
5 Toby Wilkinson, "The Army and Politics in Ancient Egypt," Historically Speaking, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2011): 35.
6 The most detailed military history of Egypt at that time is by Khaled Fahmy, All the Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, his army and the making of modern Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1977).
7 Anthony McDermott, Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak: A Flawed Revolution (Croom Helm, 1988), 150-151; on the flaws in the Pasha's modernization, industrialization and development strategies, see, inter alia, Amos Perlmutter, "Egypt and the Myth of the New Middle Class: A Comparative Analysis," Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1967): 46-65; Morroe Berger, "Military Elite and Social Change: Egypt Since Napoleon," Princeton Near East Paper 2 (1966): 6-12.
8 Quoted in Earl Cromer (Evelyn Baring), Modern Egypt, Vol. 1 (Macmillan Company, 1908), 175.
9 McDermott, 151.
10 Joel Gordon, Nasser's Blessed Movement: Egypt's Free Officers Officers and the July Revolution (American University Press, 1996), 40
11 Trevor LeGassick, trans and ed., "The Defense Statement of Ahmad ‘Urabi The Egyptian," From the Blunt Manuscript at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (Cairo: American University Press, n.d.), 18.
12 Bernard Vernier, "L'évolution du régime militaire en Egypte," Revue Française de science politique 3 (1963): 603.
13 Charles Tripp, "Ali Mahir and the politics of the Egyptian army, 1936-1942," in Contemporary Egypt: through Egyptian eyes, ed. Charles Tripp, (Routledge, 1993), 45.
14 Gordon, 40.
15 J.C. Hurewitz, Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension (Westview Press, 1982), 124.
16 McDermott, 151.
17 Gordon, 39.
18 "Defenders of the Middle East – III: Egypt," The Economist, July 8, 1950, 82.
19 Raymond Baker, Egypt's Uncertain Revolution under Nasser and Sadat (Harvard University Press, 1978), 54.
20 "Egypt: The Revolutionary," Time, September 26, 1955, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,807617,00.html#ixzz1PV….
21 Gamal Abdel Nasser, "Memoirs of the First Palestine War," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1973): 3-32.
22 Richard Dekmejian, "Egypt and Turkey: The Military in the Background," in Soldiers, Peasants, and Bureaucrats: Civil-Military Relations in Communist and Modernizing Societies, ed. Roman Kolkowicz and Andrzej Korbonski (George Allen and Unwin, 1982), 30.
23 Baker, Egypt's Uncertain Revolution, 48.
24 Francis Tusa, "The Army and Egypt," Brassey's Defence Yearbook, 1989 (London: Brassey's, 1989), 119.
25 Dekmejian, 31-33; On the engineering corps of the armed forces see the study by Tewfik Aclimandos, "Les ingénieurs militaires egyptiens," Maghreb-Machrek 146 (1994): 7-26.
26 Abul Fath, L' affaire Nasser (Paris: Plon, 1962), 123-124.
27 Baker, Egypt's Uncertain Revolution, 53-54.
28 Fath, 121.
29 The New York Times, October 22, 1955.
30 On the early Egyptian ballistic missile program, see Lewis Frank, "Nasser's Missile Program," Orbis 5 (1967): 746-756.
31 One of the most extensive analysis in English is by David Witty, "A Regular Army in Counterinsurgency Operations: Egypt in North Yemen, 1962-1967," Journal of Military History, Vol. 65 (2001): 401-40.
32 For example, Colonel D. De Smiley, "The War in the Yemen," The Royal United Services Institute Journal, Vol. 108, No. 632 (1963): 328-335; and Lieutenant-Colonel Neil McLean, "The War in the Yemen," The RUSI Journal, Vol. 111, No. 641 (1963): 14-29.
33 Laura James, Nasser at War: Arab Images of the Enemy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 51-68.
34 For Yemen I have relied heavily on the excellent dissertation by Jesse Ferris, "Egypt, the Cold War and the Civil War in Yemen, 1962-1966" (PhD, Princeton University, 2008). I have discussed the impact of the Yemen war in greater detail in the book manuscript.
35 McDermott, 161-163.
36 "Nasser purges air force," Christian Science Monitor, June 27, 1969, 4.
37 Edgar O'Balance, "Problems of the Egyptian Phoenix," Army Quarterly, July 1972, 451-455.
38 Neue Zürcher Zeitung, August 21, 1970, 6; Daily Telegraph, February 8, 1969, 3.
39 Raymond Hinnebusch, Egyptian Politics under Sadat: The Post-Populist Development of an Authoritarian Modernizing State (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1988); R. Michael Burrell and ‘Abbas Kelidar, "Egypt: The Dilemmas of a Nation, 1970-1977," Washington Papers 48, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, 1977.
40 George Gawrych, The Albatross of Decisive Victory: War and Policy Between Egypt and Israel in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars (Greenwood Press, 2000), 221.
41 John Cooley, "Egyptian army unrest tests Sadat diplomacy," Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 1972, 5.
42 Raymond Baker, Sadat and After: Struggles for Egypt's Political Soul (Harvard University Press, 1990), 118.
43 For extensive details of the impact of worsening Soviet-Egyptian relations on the readiness of the armed forces, see William George Sykes, "Egyptian Arms Procurement in the Post-1973 War Era: A Case Study of the Dynamics of the Arms Diversification Process" (M.A., Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, 1977).
44 The Washington Star, July 5, 1977, 4.
45 A discussion in The Washington Post, June 7, 1976, 18.
46 The New York Times, March 28, 1976, 12.
47 "Focus on developing air forces: The Egyptian Air Force," Aerospace International (1980): 46-47.
48 Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 1979, 5.
49 Roberto Aliboni, "Security, Foreign Policy and Public Expenditure: A Hard Test for the New Egyptian Regime," The International Spectator, Vol. 18, No.1-2 (1983): 3-4.
50 "Interview with Egyptian Defence Minister," Cairo home service, 1850 GMT, May 28, 1980, in British Broadcasting Corporation — Summary of World Broadcasts, Middle East/6432/A/2, May 30, 1980. (henceforth BBC-SWB),
51 The Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1979, 1.
52 The Guardian, October 6, 1978, 6.
53 "Sadat's Power Base," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1978): 159.
54 Ibid., 160.
55 F. Clifton Berry and H.M.F. Howard, "Modernizing Egypt's Armed Forces," International Defense Review 4 (1984): 399-410.
56 David Harvey and Michael Dunn, "Egypt's New Defense Dynamism: An Interview with Egyptian Defense Minister, Lt. General Muhammad Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala," Defense and Foreign Affairs, [Paris Air Show Edition] (1981): 20.
57 "Egypt — an overview of the military situation," Military Technology 11 (1984): 62-63.