The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Under Field Marshal Tantawi: A Recipe for Revolution or More of the Same?

Vol. 10, No. 30    February 16, 2011

  • Egypt is ruled today by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under the leadership of Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi. The country is now ruled under military law, something which the masses did not expect and which does not fit in with the idea of democratic reform.
  • WikiLeaks documents describe the Egyptian military as a parallel economy, a kind of “Military Inc.” Military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are active in water, olive oil, cement, construction (building roads and airports), hotel and gasoline industries. The military produces televisions and milk and bread.
  • Egypt has become a firm ally of the U.S. since the end of the 1970s, assisting it in many facets of its anti-terrorist policy. Tantawi himself and his troops fought alongside American troops in Operation Desert Shield in Iraq in 1990.
  • At 76, Tantawi is no revolutionary. He and his colleagues have a lot to lose if they accede to actual demands for change. A transformation of the regime into a civilian democratic regime will not be viable for the military, and he will likely try his best to maintain the advantages his class has always enjoyed.
  • In the strategic field, it seems that Tantawi will remain loyal to Egypt’s American ally, even though he may have to rethink the totality of the country’s commitment in view of the behavior of the U.S. administration toward Mubarak.

Egypt is ruled today de-facto by a military team nominated for this task by former President Hosni Mubarak in order to administer the affairs of the state. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under the leadership of Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, did not receive any instructions regarding the way to rule Egypt or the transition process from an authoritarian regime to a democracy, as demanded by the masses and the various political groups. More important, none of its members have ever received training in preparation to meet this challenge. Indeed, none of its members have experienced democracy and understand how to implement its principles in an Egyptian context. The Council is a team of career army officers who have been catapulted by events into a position they never dreamt of and were never prepared for.

In 1952, a group of Egyptian army officers led by Lt.-Col. Gamal Abd el Nasser staged a coup that ousted a nearly two-century-old existing monarchy. The group chose a more experienced officer, Mohammad Naguib, to head the group in order to gain more credibility with the Egyptian people. The military ruled at the beginning through a Military Council, which was in fact a supervisor of the civilian authority that was supposed to govern Egypt. But by 1954, Nasser eclipsed Naguib, was elected president, created a one-party system that was supposed to encompass all political forces (including Communists and Muslim Brothers), and ruled Egypt with an iron fist until his sudden death in 1970.

Comparing Nasser’s Military Council and Tantawi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, we find:

a. The Ruling Body: Whereas Nasser created the Military Council to control the government and rule the country, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is a body mentioned clearly in the now suspended Egyptian Constitution. It is meant to be temporary and transitional. Tantawi has decided to leave the last government nominated by Mubarak in place until a new government is nominated by the Supreme Council.

b. The Age Factor: Nasser was 34 when he staged his coup, and his fellow officers were more or less the same age. Naguib was chosen to head the group because he was 51. Tantawi is 76, his chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan, is 63, and his colleagues on the Supreme Council are all in their early sixties. Nasser’s Free Officers were at the beginning of their military careers, whereas Tantawi and his colleagues are at the end of theirs.

c. Experience: Nasser and his colleagues were barely battalion commanders, whereas the only officer with more military experience was Naguib. Tantawi and his colleagues are more experienced. They include 14 generals, the commanders of the 10th largest army in the world. Except for Tantawi, all the others are relatively unknown. They include Chief of Staff Anan, Air Force Commander and Council spokesman Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohammad, Navy Commander Mohab Mamish, and Air Defense Commander Abd el Aziz Seif el Din. They know how to run an army and how to protect its economic interests. They do not know how to run a state.

d. The State: Nasser and his colleagues replaced a monarchy with an authoritarian regime under the semblance of a republic in which military men were given a clear advantage in the economy and were nominated to lucrative jobs and positions. This system was perpetuated under subsequent presidents of Egypt to the point where one could say that the military possessed a country and not vice versa. WikiLeaks documents refer to U.S. officials describing the Egyptian military as a parallel economy, a kind of “Military Inc.,” involved in the production of electronics, household appliances, clothing and food.1 One cable describes “its wide commercial network, and that military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are active in water, olive oil, cement, construction (building roads and airports), hotel and gasoline industries. The military produces televisions and milk and bread.” The Free Officers had nothing to lose and everything to gain, whereas the Supreme Council officers have everything to lose if they are not careful in the transition process.

e. Egypt’s Strategic Setting: Nasser transformed Egypt into a regional power, creating new strategic alliances and new alignments. He associated himself with the former USSR after having been rejected by the West, was among the leaders of the non-aligned countries, established the defunct United Arab Republic with Syria, conducted a fratricidal war in Yemen, staged numerous coups d’etat in the Arab world by the means of subversion, and lost two wars with Israel (1956 and 1967), the last one ending with the loss of the Sinai Peninsula to Israel.

Tantawi comes from a different reality. Egypt has reversed its strategic alliance and has become a firm ally of the U.S. since the end of the 1970s, assisting it in many facets of its anti-terrorist policy. Egypt is present in the international field and its troops serve under the UN flag. Tantawi himself and his troops fought alongside American troops in Operation Desert Shield in Iraq in 1990. For many years, Egypt has received a subsidy of $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid. Egypt has signed a peace treaty with Israel, which restored Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty. Egypt sells gas and oil to Israel and maintains a “cold peace” with the Jewish state. Egypt has paid the price of its separate peace with Israel by suffering a setback in its relations with the radical Arab world. Since Sadat’s presidency, Egypt has been on the defensive and stopped its subversive activities in the Arab world.

Nevertheless, there are two areas where Tantawi will have to confront the issues as his predecessors did before him:

a. The Domestic Political Scene: The Egyptian military has been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since 1954. Allies in the beginning, they turned enemies very quickly. After a failed assassination attempt against Nasser, he cracked down on the Brotherhood and arrested more than 20,000 of its members. Several were put on trial and executed. Sadat also enjoyed a brief honeymoon with the Muslim Brotherhood before cracking down on them. Ultimately, an extremist, fundamentalist organization succeeded in assassinating Sadat in October 1981. The Brotherhood did feel Mubarak’s heavy hand, but unlike his predecessors, he allowed them to run for Parliament as “independents.” Their success in getting almost 20 percent of the seats convinced Mubarak to restrain them under the emergency laws established since Sadat’s assassination. All four presidents of the post-1952 era have ruled Egypt with an iron fist. All four ignored civil rights, human rights, freedom of speech, and manifestations of protest by justifying their policy as necessary to provide security, law, and order for reasons of state.

b. The Economy: This is Egypt’s Achilles’ heal. A high birth rate coupled with a low death rate has transformed Egypt into one of the most populous countries in the world. Some 80 million people living on a strip of land that represents barely 6 percent of the surface of Egypt. As one observer put it, Egypt is like a man who is running all the time in order to remain in the same place. All governments have tried to tackle the problem with no real success. A policy of diminishing subsidies has always provoked protest, unrest, and revolt. Tantawi has been a witness to these events and surely will have to tackle these issues as well as the problem of job creation, which are at the heart of the present crisis.

Analyzing his conversations with the Americans as they appear in the WikiLeaks documents, Tantawi is very much a conservative, reluctant to embrace change and reform.2 A WikiLeaks document refers to a disgruntled mid-level Egyptian officer who described Tantawi as being “Mubarak’s poodle.” The Americans noted that “Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms…has opposed policy initiatives he views as encouraging political and religious cleavages…[and] signaled on more than one occasion his willingness to use the military to control the Muslim Brotherhood.” According to this report, Tantawi believes that economic reform fosters social instability by lessening Egyptian government control over prices and production.

Tantawi was opposed to any conditioning of American aid on human rights or any other grounds. He claimed that any conditions on military assistance are counter-productive.

In conclusion, the American analyst stated that Tantawi was “change resistant.” “Charming and courtly, he is nonetheless mired in a post-Camp David military paradigm that has served his cohort’s narrow interest for the last three decades. He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time. They simply do not have the energy, inclination, or world view to do anything differently.”3

Yet a more cautious and modest approach is recommended in this context. Sadat was once described as a drug-addicted officer and a Nasser “yes-man.” Reality proved the opposite. Mubarak was described as “the laughing cow” and it was predicted that he would not last long in power. He succeeded in staying in power for 30 years. Even Nasser had been described as a man of the CIA. It was reported that with money received from the agency, he built the Radio Tower in Cairo which became an instrument to fight the U.S. in the Arab world.

At 76, Tantawi is no revolutionary. He and his colleagues have a lot to lose if they accede to actual demands for change. A transformation of the regime into a civilian democratic regime will not be viable for the military, and he will likely try his best to maintain the advantages his class has always enjoyed.

In the strategic field, it seems that Tantawi will remain loyal to Egypt’s American ally, even though he may have to rethink the totality of the country’s commitment in view of the behavior of the U.S. administration toward Mubarak. Tantawi knows the Americans and they also know him from up close. Tantawi has already reaffirmed Egypt’s commitments to all of its international treaties and agreements, which means that no change is expected in Israeli-Egyptian relations for the time being.

Whether Tantawi will be a transitional figure remains to be seen. His age works to his detriment. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that he will remain in charge for the coming months and maybe more. No doubt, if change comes, it will come from within the Council and not from outside. For the moment the Council has given itself six months.

The Mubarak regime has been replaced by the military. Whether or not this was a military coup does not matter. The fact is that the country is now ruled under military law, something which the masses did not expect and which does not fit in with the idea of democratic reform. Tantawi has already dissolved Parliament, suspended the Constitution, and declared that a referendum will be conducted on a new, revised Constitution in two months time. Most probably, the next steps will be to allow political parties, establish the rule of law in the country, and organize elections.

 

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Notes

1. Elisabeth Bumiller, “Egypt Stability Hinges on a Divided Military,” New York Times, February 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/world/middleeast/06military.html

2.  http://www.wikileaks.la/us-embassy-cables-tantawi-resistant-to-change-in-egypt/

3. Julian Borger and James Ball, “WikiLeaks Cables: Egyptian Military Head is ‘Old and Resistant to Change’,” Guardian-UK, February 14, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/14/wikileaks-cables-egyptian-military-head

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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.