Soldiers Without Generals: Whither the Egyptian Revolution?

Soldiers Without Generals: Whither the Egyptian Revolution?

Editor’s note: this article appears in the Summer 2012 issue of Dissent. The online version has been updated and revised in light of recent developments in Egypt.

During the first week of 2012, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s effective ruling body, declared January 25 a national holiday marking the first anniversary of the beginning of the Glorious Revolution of the people (and the army). The revolution has succeeded, they proudly announced, and those who refuse to accept this are either foreign-employed agitators or disgruntled radicals. On January 22, Hosni Mubarak’s lead attorney wrapped up his defense in court by claiming that the deposed president was still Egypt’s legitimate ruler and by accusing the military not only of usurping power, but also of being implicated in the killing of more than 850 demonstrators during the first days of the revolt. That same day, the country’s first democratically elected Parliament was convening a few meters away from Tahrir Square, the heart and symbol of the revolt, with an overwhelming Islamist majority (70 percent of the vote, counting all Islamist factions) drunk with victory and dividing the spoils. On the January 25 holiday, hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of Egyptians marched all over the country in what was anything but a celebratory mood, chanting “Down with Military Rule!” and attacking Muslim Brothers in Tahrir. Yet when revolutionary activists called for a general strike on February 11 to reignite the struggle, only a few heeded their call. Finally, as the country prepared for presidential elections in May 2012, observers were astounded by the fact that two of those who announced their candidacy were none other than Mubarak’s vice president (the fearsome security chief Omar Suleiman) and his last prime minister (Ahmed Shafiq). And the runner-ups for the final round of elections, held in mid-June, were Shafiq, representing the old regime, and the Muslim Brothers’ candidate (and ultimate winner), Mohamed Morsi, representing an oppositional movement that has maintained an ambivalent attitude toward the revolution. If anything is certain at this point, it is that post-revolt politics are still quite fluid. Though a year and a half have gone by, the final verdict on the Egyptian Revolution—including whether it actually was one—is still to come.

ORGANIZATION, CLEARLY, is one of the main problems. As heroic as it was, the failure of the January 25 revolt to crystallize into a concrete revolutionary movement capable of harnessing popular energy, strategizing street battles, and negotiating on behalf of the mobilized people has minimized its political impact. Neither the temporary alliance of (secular and Islamist) vanguard activists who spearheaded the revolt nor the Muslim Brothers—the large opposition movement waiting in the wings to reap the gains—were up to the task of directing the uprising they helped unleash. And it was only natural for the average Egyptians who fueled the revolt to turn their backs on their seemingly clueless self-appointed leaders. Though the spirit of popular defiance has not yet dissipated, it is clear that the uprising fell short of its declared goal of overthrowing the regime.

Post-revolt politics have come to resemble a giant chessboard, where those in power (the military and security elite) make all the moves, while hardcore activists try desperately to block their advances. Considering that in revolutions one cannot stand still, it is only natural that the absence of a coherent and viable strategy for victory would cause the wave of popular support to subside, reducing the revolutionary situation to a waiting game, where those yearning for change can do little more than pray for their rivals to lose. Yet it is generals who win wars no matter how many brave soldiers perish; and revolutions are won by strategy, not stamina.

The ruling institutions fought hard to prevent the emergence of revolutionary movements before the revolt. But is the old regime still intact and determined to crush the revolution? Is the military acting as a proxy for its old political masters, and is the security apparatus simply doing its bidding? A close examination of the Egyptian regime, first erected by the July 1952 coup, reveals that it has not been as monolithic or well integrated as the casual observer might assume. From the very beginning, the ruling bloc has been a tripartite alliance between the military, security, and political institutions—an uneasy alliance plagued by a six-decades-long struggle over regime domination. After a series of wars, conspiracies, coup plots, and socioeconomic transformations, the balance within this “power triangle” tilted heavily toward the security apparatus, with the political leadership living contentedly in its shadow and the military subordinated, if not totally marginalized. On the eve of the 2011 revolt, Egypt had already metamorphosed from a military to a police state. The economic niche that the military controlled began to diminish with the aggressive privatization policy of the capitalists who dominated the ruling party; its social privileges were dwarfed by those of the security and political elite; the quality of its work force deteriorated significantly as a result of the social and educational collapse of the Mubarak years; its exclusive reliance on the United States might have made it impressive on paper, but in reality the dependence crippled the regime’s capacity to project regional power. Once the people took to the streets, it was only natural for the armed forces, as the least privileged among the three ruling partners, to rally to their side.

ACCORDING TO this analysis, what we are witnessing at the moment is neither a relapse to politics as usual nor the emergence of a new regime, but rather the reconstitution of the power balance within the ruling bloc. After having been sidelined by the security and political apparatuses for years, the military saw the revolt as an opportunity to outflank its partners and get back on top. It succeeded in ending the hegemony of the political elite. The ruling party has been dissolved; its top leaders have been imprisoned on various (mostly financial and criminal, rather than political) charges; when its remnants regrouped in several smaller parties to try to make a comeback, they flopped embarrassingly in the parliamentary elections, winning perhaps 3 percent of the vote; and, finally, the president was sentenced to life in prison for failing to protect the lives of the demonstrators during the revolt.

At the same time though, the military has failed almost completely in undermining the security establishment, represented by the Ministry of the Interior and its anti-riot and intelligence organs. The Central Security Forces (CSF) continue to employ excessive violence against demonstrators; and the State Security Investigations Sector (SSIS)—Egypt’s dreaded secret police—is up and running, even after the military allowed popular raids against its headquarters, imprisoned its director, and purportedly had it replaced with a new National Security Sector in March 2011; and the leaders of the police were acquitted from the charge of killing demonstrators during the revolt for lack of proof. Evidently, this dominant player in the old power-sharing arrangement is determined to weather the revolt and regain its hard-won prominence—and possibly avenge itself against dissidents and a military that left it hanging during the first weeks of revolt. Its intransigence has manifested itself in monthly cycles of violence, which have followed more or less the same pattern: police assaults on demonstrators in conjunction with or following provocations by police-hired thugs, the rallying of thousands of activists and common folk to repulse security attacks, the call on the Military Police to stop the violence and protect key installations, and the inevitable dragging of the military into the fray. These security-instigated episodes have not only managed to “entrap” the armed forces on a spiraling course of violence, but have presented the military with a difficult choice: either to stand firmly in the revolutionary camp or to authorize the security forces to repress the revolution.

Which path did the military take? On the one hand, the objective interests of the officer corps are not necessarily inconsistent with the revolution’s democratic ideals. Contrasting the status of armies under authoritarianism and democracy makes this clear. Dictators are typically suspicious of their militaries and so, despite the privileges they offer them, keep officers on a tight leash through constant security surveillance, promoting loyalists regardless of merit, fostering divisiveness within the ranks, preempting the rise of popular generals, weeding out independent-minded figures, and ignoring military input during policy formulation. Such strategies undermine professionalism and combat readiness. Many democracies, by contrast, shower their armies with privileges and social distinctions, celebrate military heroism, encourage retired generals to pursue lucrative careers in the private sector or to run for office, and involve the chiefs of staff in developing national security goals and defense doctrines. It is not a coincidence that the armies of democratic states repeatedly prove their worth on the battlefield against armies of autocracies. Armies tend to thrive in democracies and wither under the shadow of authoritarianism. Most important, democracy removes once and for all the threat of an entrenched security apparatus ordered to tame the armed forces so as to satisfy the dictator’s insatiable appetite for control. Moving from the theoretical to the substantive, revolutionary forces in Egypt, whether Islamists or liberals (though not leftists), have offered to allow the military to maintain many of its privileges and increase its autonomy in return for a full endorsement of the revolution’s demands—what was described in the press as the “safe exit” formula.

BUT STRIVING to improve one’s position within the pecking order of an authoritarian regime is one thing, and transforming society to maximize the overall interest of one’s institution is another. The latter would be a pioneering feat, probably beyond the grasp of a military caste that could hardly imagine what free governance looks like. It is not only a failure of the imagination, however, that accounts for the officers’ timidity toward democratic reform. With so many political grievances and socioeconomic distortions having piled up over decades, few of the officers have the stomach for the chaotic transition to democracy. Embarking on a comprehensive purge and restructuring of the Interior Ministry might open a Pandora’s box and destroy all prospects for reestablishing control from above. The absence of a reliable revolutionary actor that credibly represents the demands of the uprising and is capable of controlling the street (in cooperation with the military) has added to SCAF’s fear that if the dam of autocracy is broken, a sea of angry masses will flood the country. By the same token, the failure of the democratic activists to recognize the potential revolutionary role of the army has prevented them from considering a real partnership with the officers instead of the inherently implicating exchange of continued privilege for political support. Liberals hold dogmatically to the axiom of civilian control, and leftists see the military only as a conservative institution in the service of the ruling class. They are both suspicious of political armies on a theoretical basis (and unsubstantiated news reports and hearsay) rather than on an accurate analysis of the specific situation and grievances of the military in the Egyptian ruling bloc.

The military therefore opted for the safer route: to side with the police, even if it meant wasting a rare opportunity to dismantle its authoritarian foe while preserving its own power within a democratic framework. Little does it realize that by allowing the police to act with impunity, as well as by lending it a hand from time to time, it has played into the hands of the security establishment. Interior Ministry officials were well aware that the military does in fact have a choice—because both democracies and autocracies have external enemies and therefore need strong militaries, but only dictatorships, with their natural obsession over “the enemy within,” sanction unbridled domestic repression.

The military’s blessing of (and participation in) violent repression of civilians has tied its destiny, at least temporarily, to the security organs—now the police and the military will stand or fall together. Those who chanted “The people and the military are one hand!” are now crying furiously, “The people demand the execution of the field marshal!” Praise for the patriotism and integrity of the armed forces has turned into sour denunciation by hardcore activists (demonstrating in the name of “the people”) of the corrupt and complacent officer corps. The international acclaim for the military’s professionalism has given way to condemnation of the appalling policies of the military leadership and threats to suspend American aid. Even uninvolved citizens, who have not yet warmed up to the revolt, have come to regard the military with suspicion (though they might still support it as an antidote to civil unrest). In short, the position of the armed forces has deteriorated from that of an esteemed partner in the revolution to the avowed leader of the counter-revolution. With eyes wide shut, the army has crossed to the other side of the barricade and joined its most ruthless competitor for power: the security apparatus. Months after the revolt, the most popular chant in demonstrations became, “The military and the police are one hand!”

THERE WAS, of course, a third, unspoken option: a coup or some kind of breakdown in the chain of command. So far, however, the soldiers and junior officers have remained united behind their commanders—for a number of reasons. First, security control over the military since the 1970s prevented the creation of political movements within the ranks, and the absence of a worthy revolutionary organization following the revolt gave officers nowhere to turn. Second, simmering frustration with the top brass sprang from the feeling that it bowed to politicians instead of defending the military’s corporate interests, which now the leaders are successfully doing. Third, members of the armed forces do not see SCAF as devious or complacent: the revolt demanded democracy, and the Supreme Council has indeed organized free elections, and empowered the elected Parliament to draft a new constitution. Though prolonged involvement in politics and repression might strain (and eventually fracture) military cohesion, nothing at this point suggests it.

In terms of social composition, there is a clear distinction in both the military and the police between the middle-class officer corps and lower class (mostly peasant) conscripts and noncommissioned officers. Historically, this has not led to class-based tensions. Conscripts serve for three years in the army or the police-managed Central Security Forces (CSF) before returning to their respective provinces. They consider their service an unfortunate, yet temporary, ordeal. The only recorded CSF mutiny (in 1986) was triggered by rumors that their term of service was going to be extended. As for NCOs, joining the service is the best road to social mobility or at least a safety net against poverty and humiliation. Many of them thrive on extortions and abuse of less-privileged citizens, and as long as they are not pressured to mend their crooked ways, they have little to complain about.

It remains to be seen who will win—will Egypt once again become military-dominated, as it was in the 1950s, or will it continue to function as a police state, as it has since the late 1970s? One thing is for sure: bickering between these two players has been shelved temporarily as they are driven into an alliance of necessity to stabilize the political situation, an alliance that aims to undercut radical forces and usher into the transfigured ruling bloc a reform-minded political partner.

And the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, through their recently formed Justice and Freedom Party (JFP), seemed initially to be the best candidate for that latter role. Not only are they historically used to being cast into subordinate roles despite their popularity, not only is their understanding of politics limited to trying to make themselves useful to whoever is in authority, and not only does their “religious determinism” push them to prioritize spiritual over political struggle (in the hope of favorable divine intervention),* but they have two specific traits that render them particularly useful to both officers and security men. From a military standpoint, geopolitical powers (whether regional or international) will never completely trust Islamists at the helm and will always prefer having a prudent and responsible guardian on their side to check their excesses. In addition, of course, Islamism’s grand geopolitical designs could potentially furnish the army with the kind of rhetoric needed to expand its influence, maintain its privileges, and play a more active regional role.

Likewise, the security institution recognizes that Islamists can be made repression-friendly: years of underground operations have made them paranoid and willing to see conspiracies everywhere, and an agenda for strict moral reform demands constant policing. Hence, it is only normal for them to appreciate expansive monitoring and law enforcement organs and to turn a blind eye to the transgressions naturally associated with them. Ideological movements by definition (regardless of how pragmatic or opportunistic their members are) allow themselves exceptional prerogatives to be able to accomplish the wholesale transformation of society. And the more society proves recalcitrant and unwilling to change along the lines of their imagined utopia, the more doses of despotism are justified to force everyone to fall in line.

WITH THE Muslim Brothers winning a 45.7 percent plurality in Parliament (and most likely maintaining this share in future parliaments), controlling the drafting of a new constitution, participating in government, and shepherding their followers to elect one of their own as president, a new power arrangement could be negotiated between Egypt’s military and security institutions and their accommodating political partner

So far, the Muslims Brothers have proved up to the task. With their highly bureaucratic and decidedly nonconfrontational nature, they turned their backs on several opportunities to spearhead the revolt, as Islamists had done in Iran in 1979. Despite the turmoil that has embroiled the country, their strategy for change remains pretty much the same. They believe in using political gains—such as their recent electoral victories—as platforms for propagating and popularizing their cultural agenda and legitimizing their role as representatives of Islam, in the hopes that eventually all Egyptians will commit to their ideological project and submit to their absolute command. Only then will they grip power firmly and shove away all political competitors. They frequently cite the Turkish example, despite the vast differences between the two cases, to convince their followers that patience is the key to victory; real triumph will come only when Egyptians rally under their banner out of conviction, not merely as a matter of preference. Right now, they need to pass this probation period (which tests their commitment to democracy) and pursue their campaign for cultural transformation without antagonizing the military, the security, or the people. Eventually, they would be in a position to stand up and overpower the military and security institutions. Will this strategy work? Maybe. Frictions between SCAF and Islamists over presidential elections, the dissolution of parliament over a legal technicality, and the drafting of a new constitution show that their alliance is tension-ridden—Islamists are justly concerned the military leaders will sell them out (as they did in 1954), and the officers are worried Islamists might be tempted to monopolize power and push them aside. A military–Islamist confrontation will add to the volatility of the situation, possibly undermining the democratic goals of the revolution even further. But then again, there is a chance the Muslim Brothers might be corrupted or blackmailed by the military and the police to play the role they have always excelled in: that of catalyst to those in power. Once again, they might find themselves on the wrong side of history.

As far as the military and police are concerned, as soon as they settle on their new political partner, the renegotiation of power within the altered ruling coalition will likely begin. A direct clash seems unlikely at a time when both institutions need to stabilize the political situation. But a muted competition seems inevitable. What we have to look forward to, therefore, is the unfolding of yet another round of struggle within Egypt’s reconfigured power triangle, with the military determined to regain its long-lost dominance, the security adamant to keep its leverage, security adamant to keep its leverage, and the new political partner striving to establish its position among these mighty partners.** And while this outcome might not seem justified to those who sacrificed their lives and those who continue to do so to liberate themselves from the grip of these powerful institutions, is what we are left with in light of the existing balance of forces.

IN THE absence of another major shock—possibly the result of the amalgamation of local resistances by a now seemingly fearless citizenry—old habits will likely persist, as the revolt slowly shrivels. Liberals and leftists might be allowed to organize into political parties only because they have demonstrated to those in charge that at the height of their power (immediately after the revolt) they commanded only a limited following. Their divisiveness and poor strategizing were not only reflected in their failure to make any tangible gains in the fist post-revolt parliamentary elections, but have also appeared tragically in their failure to agree on a single revolutionary candidate for the presidency, producing instead five nominees, and therefore scattering the votes of their supporters. What they failed to accomplish through revolution could hardly be achieved through an exclusionary democracy carefully controlled from above. Also, regardless of how defiant activists have become, most revolution theorists agree that if the agents of coercion remain united and resolved, political contenders cannot weather seemingly endless waves of repression. At the same time, an emboldened populace could be a double-edged sword. We have to remember that the revolution was not an attempt to improve a functioning system but rather a desperate endeavor to save a disintegrating regime from driving the country into the abyss. The extent of socioeconomic injustices, bureaucratic corruption, general deterioration in education, healthcare, and all types of public services meant that the regime survived on a strict regimen of repression. The uprising was the culmination of the dozens of strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of small resistances that had become rampant in the last five years of Mubarak’s rule—and it also preempted the looming threat of massive and violent bread riots. The reinstatement of the system of repression in the absence of fundamental reforms will probably channel revolutionary energy into more sinister avenues. Egyptians forget that the increasing crime rate they are currently complaining about was not triggered by the revolt, but is essentially a continuation of the wave of social violence that surfaced in the years before the revolution. The deprivation of those years endowed criminals with a sense of moral entitlement, and the confrontations that accompanied the revolt emancipated them from fear of authority—an explosive combination indeed.

A favorable revolutionary outcome will not emerge from the impending dispersal of authority. For a confrontation to become truly revolutionary, the protagonists have to create a situation of “dual power” with the representatives of the ancien régime (and their reformist lackeys), on the one side, and those who stand for a new order on the other. This is not only the lesson we draw from the great revolutions of the modern age, but also from the recent cases of Libya and Syria. The creation of revolutionary councils galvanizes society and divides domestic and world opinion. This state of polarization between a subsiding old power and a rising new one is what eventually causes the regime to crack and summons into existence a new political order.

WE CAN reasonably conclude that the verdict is not yet in on Egypt’s future. Popular empowerment has so far been a thorn in the side of those trying to destroy the revolution. And it is hard to imagine that the millions who have thrust themselves so decisively onto the center stage of their own history could be dismissed so easily. Romanticism aside, however, one must realize that revolution is an ugly business. Those with vested interests in authoritarian rule will not simply step aside under social pressure, nor will they wither away over time. Their total suppression and defeat is of essence to any true revolution. As long as Egyptians find this course distasteful—preferring instead conciliatory solutions and wishing that sporadic pressure from below along with clustering around the Muslim Brothers (as a revolutionary movement by proxy) can somehow convince the military and security elite to “do the right thing”—little can be done. And as long as revolutionaries cannot organize their ranks and encourage their fellow citizens to make difficult choices, take risks, and accept short-term instability, then there is little hope that the people themselves will be able to turn their gallant uprising into a complete revolution. Reflecting back on the Iranian case in The Making of the Islamic Revolution, Mohsen M. Milani rightly noted, “Theorizing about revolution sounds romantic, but winning it is no romantic enterprise. The verdict on those who refuse to treat revolution as a furious war has been unequivocally clear: oblivion or death… Revolutions are like wars.” And the key to winning wars is organization.

Hazem Kandil is a political sociologist who studies military-security institutions and revolutionary movements. He is the author of the forthcoming book Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (Verso), from which portions of this article have been drawn.

*This attitude, which I refer to as “religious determinism,” follows from a peculiar reading of Islam that demands piety of its members in return for political rewards. Good Muslims, in this interpretation, need not struggle to overthrow authority; power will fall in their laps if they exert themselves on the moral field (with some minimal effort on the worldly as well) so that they can benefit from divine grace. The 2011 revolt is seen as a prime example. Non-suspecting revolutionaries challenged political power, forcing a new leadership (the military) to hold free elections, which the Islamists—despite their minor role in the revolt—won by a landslide. Divine intervention indeed.

**The military made a head start via a series of measure in mid-June 2012. The Minister of Justice granted the Military Police and Military Intelligence the right to arrest citizens, thus legalizing their domestic security responsibilities. SCAF issued a Complementary Constitutional Declaration reclaiming legislative power pending the election of a new parliament; securing a veto over the drafting of the new constitution; retaining exclusive authority over all decisions pertaining to the armed forces; and requiring the elected president to seek its permission before declaring war. Finally, the Defense Minister revived Egypt’s National Defense Council (NDC), first created in 1957 to tackle national security threats. The old council convened at the invitation of the president and had only two military representatives: the general commander and the war minister. The latest rendition is drastically different. It has eleven military representatives and only six civilians, including the president. It can be convened at the wish of the majority of the members and takes decisions by absolute majority. This means, practically speaking, that the NDP can assemble and pass resolutions without the president, and—by the same token—cannot do so if officers chose to ignore the president’s call.

Image: “Egyptian Police and the Domino Effect” (January 25, 2011) © Carlos Latuff


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