The world need to understand better the relationship between the Egyptians and their army.
But before I try to explain I hope you do not jump to conclusions and assume that the writer is defending any form of military rule ( though at times it is preferred to chaos) . Nor should this be construed as an appeal for Egypt’s army chief, field marshal Abdelfattah Al-Sissi to run for president. I personally think that is a bad idea for Egypt, for the army and for the man himself for reasons I will not discuss here.
Understanding that relationship is necessary to fully grasp what’s happening in Egypt . It is also crucial for debunking the Muslim Brothers narrative about themselves as “victims” and about the meandering path of the Egyptian revolution.
It’s worth recalling here the Muslim Brothers’ incurable habit of doublespeak : When they were on the same side as the military – which they were after the fall of Mubarak and earlier during the 1950s — they were the first to denounce critics of the military as traitors and harbingers of anarchy. Now that the army took a stance against them and came on the side of the people, they cried foul.
Although Egypt as a society is thousands of years old, as a modern nation state it is still largely a work in progress. Foremost among the effort to forge a modern state out of the chaos of the Mamluk era was the creation of a professional army by the Ottoman ruler Mohammed Ali Pasha (1769 –1849 ). Its rank and file were drawn from what was once a predominantly peasant population who resisted violently the idea of the compulsory draft. Some mutilated themselves rather than join the new army. However, over the years the army championed popular causes which cemented its reputation in the collective psyche as a truly nationalist institution despite less than impressive record on the battlefield.
It was the army that led the revolt against foreign influence and privilege back in 1879, which ended disastrously wrong with its leader Ahmed Orabi (1840-1911) arrested and sent to exile , and Egypt falling under British rule. But it was the Egyptian officers (as distinct from Turkish, Albanian , Circassian who really controlled the military establishment ) who sowed the seed of the long struggle for national liberation that was to culminate in the 1919 revolution.
In 1952 it was the military again who intervened to shape Egypt’s modern history. School books call it a revolution, and opinion is still largely divided over whether to call it a coup, but its impact was far and wide, and it’s legacy is still with us today.
There is no doubt that the soldiers were sincere nationalists. But they were neither angels nor democrats. However, they didn’t turn Egypt into a fully-fledged military dictatorship with martial laws and military tribunals for everyone who stepped over the mark. The role of policing society and suppressing dissent was left to the brutal secret services or the state security agency. This shielded the military institution from public anger and criticism, but by no means completely absolves it from moral and political responsibility for whatever crimes or human rights violations that were committed under their watch.
Whatever you think of the 1952 free officers cabal, it hasn’t affected the standing of the army as far as the wider public is concerned. The political class may squabble or disagree , but for the average Egyptian , the army is above the fray. It’s standing was further enhanced by undertaking major infrastructure projects- implemented effectively and in record time. Compare this to the stumbling and extremely ineffective and corrupt state institutions that seem totally incapable of delivering the services they were designed for, and you can understand why the army compares favourably with other parts of the state.
Regardless of what you also think of the army’s involvement in the economy , ordinary Egyptians see in it discipline and efficiency where all else in the state machinery is incompetent or corrupt. You only need to visit any government agency to see what I mean: chaos , no respect whatsoever for the ordinary man or woman and conspicuous corruption.
Moreover, It’s widely known that the army has been one of the main stumbling blocks to Mubarak’s privatisation scheme, some parts of which have benefited rapacious crony capitalists at the expense of the public purse. In this context, the army almost morphs into the upholder of the Nasser era public sector economy ( if not morphing into the public sector itself ) for which there is still a substantial constituency in Egypt. Your opinion of the rights and wrongs of the state ownership of factories and companies matters less here. The fact is that many Egyptians have not benefited from privatising the publicly owned companies. They have only seen the rich get richer. Nostalgia to Nasser era “socialism” (rightly or wrongly) plays no small part in that emotional bond and reinforces popularity of the military.
Last but not least, the Egyptian military are not a caste or drawn exclusively from a certain social class. It’s soldiers and officers come mainly from the middle and working classes – that’s the bulk of the population. There is no family which hasn’t had one of its sons in the army. This has made the army in many ways representative of Egyptian society. Not only that, but the military has been a tool of social mobility, helping many of those who didn’t stand a chance in the private sector to reach to the very top of society : so was Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.
In short, those who speak of military dictatorship are either members of the Muslim Brothers, or people enthralled by their narrative of victimhood, or for other ideological reasons refuse to see the complex reality of Egypt, or simply those who really don’t know the country.
(This piece was written for the Islamist Gate : http://www.islamistgate.com/347)