The Egyptian Military – Myths and Reality

The Egyptian Military – Myths and Reality

from Jonathan Wright by Jonathan

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All eyes are now on the Egyptian armed forces, which assumed power on Friday night when Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Hosni Mubarak was giving up the presidency. I’ve seen masses of analysis and speculation about the nature of the military establishment, but the sad truth is that no one knows very much about its inclinations and long-term ambitions. One indication of the paucity of hard information is the  vast amount of coverage given to those few lines about Defence Minister Tantawi in the U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks some weeks ago. On top of that, journalists and commentators have dug down into their archives and revived material on the military which may have been valid in the 1990s but is almost certainly out of date.
Here are a few myths about the Egyptian military that I have seen in print since the start of the popular uprising on January 25:
– the myth that the Egyptian military controls up to 40 percent, even 45 percent, of the economy (Augustus Richard Norton cited the 40 percebt figure in an article which I can no longer trace and Josh Stacher does not rule out 45 percent). If this was ever true, which I doubt, it ceased to be true many years ago. The balance between the private and public sectors of the Egyptian economy has been shifting inexorably in favour of the private sector since the mid-1970s, and the military plays no significant role in the sectors which are now dominant — cement, steel, oil, gas, tourism, telecommunications, banking and petrochemicals. Two often-cited examples of the military role in the economy are its ownership of mineral water bottling plants and the production of washing machines in what used to be arms factories. Both of these enterprises came about under special circumstances. The mineral water operation is in the remote oasis of Siwa, close to the Libyan border, and began at a time when that area was under military control for strategic security reasons. The washing machine operation began in the 1970s when the Arab Organisation for Industrialization (AOI) collapsed and the Egyptian government needed to find ways to use excess capacity in the arms factories. The AOI was a joint Arab project for military production but the Arab partners pulled out when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Both these sectors are highly competitive and the army’s market share (where it exists – I’ve never seen these washing machines in the market) is small. For a more realistic assessment of the military’s economic activities, see Sarah Topol’s interview with the minister of military production:

The ministry’s revenues from the private sector are about 2 billion Egyptian pounds a year ($345 million). It employs 40,000 civilians, who assemble water-treatment stations for the Ministry of Housing, cables for the Ministry of Electricity, laptops for the Ministry of Education, and armaments for the Ministry of Interior’s vehicles.

By way of comparison Egypt’s annual GDP is about 1,250 billion Egyptian pounds and the workforce is about 26 million. Even if one includes the manpower and labour of the regular armed forces (most of whom are low-paid conscripts whose work has little economic value) and if one assumes that the rate of return on the military’s commercial operations is very low (and there’s no special reason to assume that), I doubt the military’s share of the economy could exceed 10 or 15 percent.

– the myth that all or most provincial governors come from the military. In fact, in line with the shift of emphasis under Mubarak from external to internal security, almost all provincial governors have been former police generals since the 1990s, with the exception of those in border provinces such as North and South Sinai, Mersa Matrouh, the Red Sea and so on. This confusion may have arisen because so many have the rank of liwa (major general), which in Egypt is common to both the army and police.
– the myth that the military had a hand in routine policy making throughout the Mubarak era. Proponents of this theory need to give us examples of junctures where the military had any input into policy that was not directly relevant to their sphere of activity. When Mubarak faced an insurgency by the Islamic Group in middle Egypt in the 1990s, he relied solely on the Interior Ministry to deal with it and almost all the victims on the government side were policemen. The army stayed aloof. When Mubarak began serious ecoonomic liberalisation under Prime Minister Nazif from 2004 onwards, there is no evidence that the military made any contribution, either in favour or in opposition. Speculation that the military would have vetoed the succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal to the presidency remains pure speculation, since it was never put to the test. Even in the case of Egyptian policy towards Gaza and Hamas over the last few years, there’s no reason to believe that the decisions were not taken by Mubarak, Omar Suleiman and other Mubarak aides, and that the military merely followed the presidential orders.
– the myth that large numbers of retired army generals still hold key positions in state companies and bureaucratic institutions. This was true in the 1960s and 1970s, but the phenomemon has been very much in decline. No former generals have top positions at state banks, for example, where the leadership is entirely professional. The same applies to state media and publishing organisations. The pattern under Mubarak was to appoint technocrats from within the same institution. It is however true that some former generals close to the regime could carve out lucrative niches in the private sector – in security companies, for example, or in the case of Hussein Salem, in the tourism and hydrocarbon sector (gas exports to Israel). We see much the same phenomenon in the United States with defence contractors and consultants.

It’s important to bear these myth in mind when assessing the likely behaviour of the ruling military council. Jon Alterman in the Washington Post, for example,  paints a very distorted picture of the reality. Steve Negus’s response on The Arabist is exactly right and I would have written much the same if he had not done so already.


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