Nezar AlSayyad is Professor of Architecture and Urban History, and Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He was raised in Cairo, and as a practicing architect has designed many buildings in the city. His Cairo: Histories of a City, forthcoming this spring, chronicles the many Cairos that have existed through the centuries, and the figures who have shaped them, including Hosni Mubarak. Below, in a piece co-written with Tara Graham, Publications Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley, AlSayyad identifies the powerful vested interests threatening this vulnerable moment of transition in Egypt.
“Egypt has passed through a critical period in her recent history characterized by bribery, mischief, and the absence of governmental stability . . . Accordingly, we have undertaken to clean ourselves up and have appointed to command us men from within the army whom we trust in their ability, their character, and their patriotism. It is certain that all Egypt will meet this news with enthusiasm and will welcome it.”
The statement above could have been uttered in the recent past by some YouTube revolutionary or Facebook organizer, but Free Officer Anwar Sadat made this early morning rally call nearly six decades ago, on July 23rd in 1952, when the Egyptian military launched a coup to overthrow the king. A few years later, the new republic swore in its first president.
The Egyptian people have long referred to that day in July as their liberation day, and Tahrir (or Liberation) Square in downtown Cairo owes its name to this early military revolt. It is both appropriate and ironic that the square became the site of the more recent revolution resulting in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power. Tahrir Square has certainly earned its name.
Mubarak, who stubbornly stood his ground in three successive speeches delivered during the course of the recent uprising, never announced his own resignation. In the end, he was most likely exiled by his Armed Forces, to whom he supposedly delegated his authority as president. It seems history has just repeated itself, but this time with the military ousting a president, instead of a king.
Today, as pundits of all political persuasions engage in speculation about the future of Egypt, it is important to take a more tempered attitude toward the prospects. It is not yet clear whether the Egyptian uprising will be a Velvet Revolution, as many have hoped, or an Iranian-style Islamic Revolution, but it is clear that all has not devolved into a Tiananmen Square crackdown. At least, not yet.
The country’s future now depends on the actions of the Egyptian military over the course of the next few months. While the five communiqués issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces give reason for optimism, they don’t readily reveal the military’s true stance on matters. The army may not have intervened to silence the anti-Mubarak protesters, but it maintained the same passivity when pro-Mubarak thugs went on the attack. The rationale here is unclear, but it’s worth noting that the military has much more to lose in the current environment than it has to gain.
Over the last 30 years, the top brass of the Armed Forces, which includes the Army, Air Force, Air Defense Command, Navy, Republican Guard, Infantry, military police and intelligence, and ammunition industries, along with various schools and academies, greatly benefitted from Mubarak’s economic liberalization policies. Recognizing the prime real estate inherited from the military takeover of 1952, the different branches of the Armed Forces began selling parcels of extra land, or building their own income generating businesses—housing complexes, hotels, resorts and factories—on empty lots. These facilities were not set aside for the sole use of officers, but were open to the public as a means to enrich the top brass of military generals. These men were usually wealthy enough to later retire from service and participate in the vibrant investment sector of Egypt’s economy.
Despite their promise to maintain the civilian, but illegitimate, cabinet established by Mubarak before his ouster, the Armed Forces—now in the driver’s seat— will inevitably influence transitional policies to protect their own investments.
But the Armed Forces are not alone.
They will have to negotiate and contend with another set of institutions that thrived under Mubarak’s rule—the security apparatus. The apparatus is constituted of the General Intelligence Directorate, State Security and Investigative Service, Central Security Forces, as well as local police officers and soldiers who serve various cities and governorates. Unlike the Armed Forces, the apparatus was a target of the recent protests. It remains powerful, however, as it numbers nearly two million people (by some estimates) associated with the Ministry of Interior and its various units. The Armed Forces, on the other hand, consist of less than half a million individuals, only an eighth of which are career officers and soldiers. The rest are conscripts.
Like the military, the security apparatus is heavily invested in the Egyptian economy. It oversees its own income generating public sector companies, mostly in the areas of urban development, contracting and construction. And like the military, the security apparatus will not easily relinquish its stake of the profits.
As the jubilation over Mubarak’s departure subsides and the frustration over Egypt’s uncertain future sets in, the challenge for the Supreme Council will be two-fold. First, it will have to control the powerful hands of Egypt’s security apparatus. Moreover, it will have to set aside the economic motives of its own institutions—a difficult task, indeed.
The pace at which the Armed Forces move toward transition and reform, and the transparency with which they pursue it, will ultimately determine success or failure. A faster pace and forthright process will most likely ensure an orderly and just transition to democratic civilian rule. A slow, secretive pace—as seems to be the case at the moment—could take Egypt into a future made murky by a dangerous mix of military, money, and motives. The Supreme Council’s refusal to lift emergency rule and failure to appoint ministers to replace those who resigned or were forced out of office is a worrisome trend.
Only time will tell which direction or interests will prevail at this critical moment in Egypt’s history.