In Army We Trust… or do we?

The peoples army... keep it this way

For weeks I resisted writing about the army and their role in the post-revolution management of Egypt’s affairs, but it seems that the topic doesn’t want to go away. The prevailing belief since Mubarak was deposed is that the army is on the people’s side, and the dissenting belief is that they have their own hidden agenda to continue to rule Egypt. I believe the reality is more nuanced than either perspective.

For a short period of time, the interests of the army and “the revolution” were perfectly aligned, and that’s why they acted in complete harmony. Now, their interests and priorities are starting to diverge, and that’s why the increasing tensions. The challenge for both is to make sure that they can manage this divergence without getting into a full confrontation that would be disastrous for both and for the whole country.

There are two ways to analyze and understand the actions of the army and the revolution: one is to look at both from a distance as two actors playing a game of chess, another is to look inside each and try to understand their internal dynamics. I will use both ways to examine and try to understand a number of milestones of the revolution.

The first milestone is the point where the army sided with the revolution against Mubarak on the last days of his reign. The prevailing explanation is that the army sided with the people against the dictator – a moral argument. The reality is that the army also had significant interests in supporting the revolution. First, they got rid of the Gamal Mubarak project, something that the army never supported and may be even resisted. Second, they maintained (or regained?) their role as the guardian of the state, a role which Mubarak managed to erode over three decades. Third, they maintained the internal cohesion among their own ranks (some incidents/rumors indicated signs of internal frictions within the army). Forth, they ensured that the revolution doesn’t escalate to an unmanageable level, even beyond the control of the army, which would drag the country into uncharted waters (e.g., with respect to US or Israeli relations; or into an Islamic state a la Iran).

Apart from the army’s interests as an institution, their rank and file officers were also as furious as the rest of the country. Unlike the police force, where the rank and file enjoyed high levels of corruption, army officers had limited means and suffered from the same economic ails as the rest of the country. And many of them sympathized with the revolution on a personal basis. The army could not risk a massive dissent if they took an unpopular decision (there were unconfirmed reports that this may have already happened). Either way, the army could not afford a large scale confrontation with millions in the streets.

So as a result, the interests of the army and the revolutions were in alignment: remove Mubarak and Gamal, throw their top cronies under the bus, and quickly transition into a new civilian government, under the guardianship of the army. This was the deal and everyone liked it at the time.

Today, exactly two months later, the situation is different: the friction between the army and the revolution is visible and growing, and there are few explanations. Many people feel betrayed by the army, and the army feels under-appreciated by the people! Why? The revolution won, but the army is governing! And they are both discovering that their alignment of interest was temporary: each side is heading towards their own goals and interests, and they have not realized that their goals and interests are different.

The army was happy to see the Gamal project destroyed, and a new regime that shows them more respect; however, they have no interest in a rapid full scale purge that may reach some of their leadership. On the other hand, the revolution wants to see a full purge of all the symbols of the Mubarak regime, and expedited trials for political corruption charges. The army is sacrificing few escape goats every Thursday to preempt the Friday demonstrations, but the revolution is running out of patience.

Also, the army has no interest in getting into the day to day activities of governing – they want to maintain a care taker role.  But the revolution has specific demands like a new minimum wage and quick government reforms. It is hard to implement any of these reforms during a transition phase, with limited political mandate and a new government. Again, people’s patience is running low.

There were several incidents where the army used force against demonstrators: in front of the Prime Minister’s office, in Cairo University faculty of science, in Tahrir square (using thugs to evacuate the square). However, the most dangerous of these incidents was last Friday: few uniformed low-ranking (alleged?) military officers joined the Tahrir square crowd and chanted against Field Marshal Tantawi and the army’s leadership – a dangerous move that threatens the army’s internal cohesion. They also decided to stay overnight in the square, protected by an estimated 2-3 thousand civilians. The army attached them at 3 am in a clear show of power, primarily to arrest their own officers, but then to clear the square from all demonstrators. Many saw this as an attack on the revolution; however, I believe the story is different. The army is not a monolithic body, as we all see it from the outside, and they probably have similar internal fractures that reflect the fractures among the whole population. Their violent reaction is to protect their internal cohesion. They cannot afford at this point (or any point) to have dissenting elements from their ranks displaying public disobedience, especially during a revolution. This is consistent with the army’s culture (and all armies around the world), and it should not be taken as an action against the revolution. People need to refrain from supporting uniformed military officers in demonstrations, because the army will always react in the same way.

So where do we go from here?

First, we need to understand that the interests and priorities of the army, as an institution, and the revolution, are different and diverging. This will help both sides move beyond the emotional discourse of betrayal or under-appreciation. The army has not betrayed the people, and the people actually do appreciate the army’s role!

Second, we need to understand the different structure and ways that each side operates. The army is a command and control hierarchical organization, with a very strong culture and discipline. They are slow to operate; they will limit their involvement in the civilian affairs of the state; and they will act violently against any act that threatens their internal cohesion. On the other hand, the revolution is a broad network and coalition of groups and individuals. It lacks leadership, but it has developed a strong support base that is willing to defend it against any perceived danger. It is volatile, angry, confident, but insecure.

In addition to the above understanding, we need a civilian buffer between the army and the revolution. Having generals and military officers deal, on daily basis, with revolutionary youth in the streets, is a recipe for disaster. The police force needs to be quickly rehabilitated and redeployed (read my previous blog:; and possibly instituting a governing presidential council that would communicate with the people on a daily basis and provide a civilian face for the regime. And if the army doesn’t like a presidential council, then at least give a more visible role to the popular prime minister, and reduce the visibility of the army officers. The army needs to keep a distance from the people to avoid more friction.

Last, the army needs to get ahead of the game. Their reaction so far has been slow, similar to Mubarak’s reaction during the 18 day revolution. They are often chasing the events, and responding to the demands of the previous week. They need to get serious political advice to understand the trajectory of the revolution and anticipate the next wave of demands.

And the revolution needs to keep the pressure. Few hours in Tahrir Square every Friday is a good message to those with a short memory. It’s a clear show of power, persistence and unity.

Amin Elmasry. 11 April 2011.

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