The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Army Guys

The different social “locations” of the armies of Egypt and Tunisia explain the divergent paths of the recent upheavals in those two countries.

Published on May 1, 2011

In the American media’s simplistic version of the ongoing Arab Uprising, the events in Egypt followed a script more or less identical to the one first run in Tunisia: Out goes the Arab dictator, and with him goes the regime. As the cameras panned from Tunis eastward to Cairo, Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian military-bureaucratic regime seemed to merge into one and the same being, such that getting rid of the former also meant getting rid of the latter. And on went the cameras to Manama, to San‘a, to Tripoli, and perhaps soon to Amman, Riyadh and Damascus, too.

The problem, of course, is that all these places aren’t working from the same script. For all the similarities one can find between the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, the differences matter more to the very dissimilar patterns we have seen play out and, more important, to the very distinct political outcomes we are liable to witness in coming months. One key factor, perhaps a defining one when all is said and done, concerns the very different roles that the Tunisian and Egyptian armies have played in their respective countries. Unless one understands the matrix of institutional order in Arab countries (or for that matter in any country), one cannot really understand events as they play out. So let us do a little institutional digging and see what we can learn.

Tunisia has suddenly regained its role, lost in recent decades, as a pays pilote, or model, for development in the Arab world. Though it is only a small country on the fringe of the Arab heartland, Tunisia was the launch pad for the Arab uprising that has now spread to Egypt and beyond, a development as unlikely as any one could have imagined just a few months ago. In Tunisia, the army enabled civilian politicians and technocrats constitutionally to take the helm in the wake of the popular uprising. In Egypt, too, the army refused to shoot civilians, but once President Mubarak failed to quell the uprising, even with the help of his old friend (and newly appointed Vice President) Omar Suleiman, the protesters acquiesced to rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for a six-month interim period. Superficially, then, the roles of the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries, as well as the countries’ respective mass demonstrations, seemed remarkably similar. It took 23 days for Tunisian demonstrators, moving from peripheral regions to Sfax and finally Tunis, to topple their dictator. The Egyptians, starting from Cairo and inspired by the Tunisian victory, did it in just 18 days.

There are other similarities, as well. It is no coincidence that Egypt, although having eight times Tunisia’s population, was the first country in the region to follow suit. The similarities stem from their parallel histories: Both Egypt and Tunisia, unlike nearly all of their neighbors, have relatively strong states based on historical legacies that are thousands of years old and are reflections of the stable tax bases provided by sedentary agricultural life along the Nile Valley and Tunisia’s extended Sahel. Each country engaged in serious state-building reforms even before falling under the protection of the British and French, respectively, in 1881–82. Each engaged in bouts of “socialism”, with extensive state planning of their economies in 1961. Each then reversed course in the 1970s and 1980s, but without voiding entirely the legacy of earlier experiments.

The differences, however, matter more. This is not surprising given the nature of the two armed forces and their political roles—if not also their very different ties to foreign powers. Ever since its independence from France in 1956, Tunisia has been a strong and loyal ally of the West and in particular the United States. Tunisia was also a Western success story in the “development decade” of the 1960s. Egypt distanced itself from the Soviet Union after 1972 and became a principal U.S. ally in the region. Both Tunisia and Egypt then gave the Pentagon a virtual monopoly over military equipment and training, but their distinct historical legacies dictated very different results. After the collapse of Lebanon in civil war in 1975, Tunisia was the only surviving civilian republic in the Arab world. In Egypt, on the other hand, Colonel Nasser dashed all hopes of a return to civilian rule in 1954 by displacing General Mohammed Naguib, the mostly forgotten leader of the July 1952 Free Officers revolt against the Egyptian monarchy. Naguib had favored the restoration of Egypt’s parliamentary democracy; Nasser favored a continuing populist revolution under the supervision of the military.

Under Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba (1959–87), the fledgling army was barely in good enough shape to march in parades celebrating the country’s newly won independence. The initial force of 3,000 gradually expanded to a few tens of thousands after the bitter experiences of the 1961 Bizerte crisis, in which Tunisian nationalist youth militia forces suffered heavy losses to French paratroopers defending a naval base, a relic of the colonial past. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali seized power in 1987, he transformed Tunisia into a police state, relying on the hastily quadrupled ranks of the security and intelligence forces in the Interior Ministry to maintain his rule. He intentionally subordinated the sub-50,000-strong Tunisian military to this force. Underequipped, the military remained, as in Bourguiba’s time, under U.S. tutelage to ensure that the French, who supplied and trained the vastly more politically important security and intelligence forces, would not have influence over all the regime’s means of coercion.

This is why, when the December 2010 demonstrations erupted, the Tunisian military sided with the demonstrators, even to the point of opening fire on Tunisian security and intelligence troops, and why it was the Tunisian army that ushered Ben Ali into his Saudi exile. Tunisian officers in training in the United States cheered the uprising and greeted news of the departure of their President ecstatically. Army Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar shunned a possible role as a strongman, conspicuously stepping aside to allow the energized political opposition to begin to push the remnants of the Ben Ali regime from power.

Thanks to their military defenders, shortly after Ben Ali’s departure the civilian opposition in Tunisia exerted sufficient street pressure to induce the resignation of all Ministers perceived to be clients of the old regime. The transition operated within the rules of Tunisia’s much amended Constitution of 1959. Fouad Mbazza, the President of the National Assembly, succeeded Ben Ali as Interim President and was given the task of organizing elections within sixty days. The sitting parliament, packed with Ben Ali cronies and clients of the ruling party, was pressured into empowering the President to issue decree laws. He, in turn, persuaded by reformist leaders, named a new Interior Minister who suspended the operations of Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Rassemblement constitutionnel democratique (RCD), and urged the Tunis Court of First Instance to dissolve it—which it eventually did. Three commissions headed by respected independent figures are now investigating issues of political reform, corruption and crimes committed during the recent upheaval. Elections, meanwhile, will (wisely) be postponed for anywhere from six months to a year in order to give opposition parties time to organize.

What these events show is that the Tunisian army was not invested in the regime. It was not well provided for relative to the regime’s Praetorian guard forces, and it was not the beneficiary of significant foreign assistance. The amount of military aid provided to the Tunisian military by the United States was quite modest. The officer corps remains highly professional and has possibly the highest ratio of U.S.-trained personnel of any Arab army. Its officer trainees, moreover, enjoy very favorable reputations for dedication and competence with the American military and civilian personnel who have worked with them.

Most important, perhaps, the Tunisian military had few economic interests under its control. It was largely cut off from the patronage networks that enmeshed President Ben Ali, his family and a few other sycophantic hangers-on. Indeed, Ben Ali may have engineered a helicopter crash of much of its high command in 2002, so there was no love lost between the regime and the army.

The Egyptian army, by contrast, remains heavily invested in the regime. Indeed, it is the regime. Like Tunisia, Egypt was a police state, but one with a considerably larger role reserved for the military—a legacy of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s determination in 1954 to pursue a revolutionary course. The Egyptian military has retained this supremacy over almost six decades. Its 450,000-strong force is outnumbered more than three to one by the Interior Ministry’s various security and police forces, but, unlike in Tunisia, the Egyptian military are much better paid and equipped than their security and police counterparts.

Also staffed by the military but reporting to the President, General Intelligence (Omar Suleiman’s roost for many years) has been the regime’s premier intelligence agency, and its officers scarcely concealed their contempt for colleagues in the Ministry of Interior. Conscripts in the Ministry of Interior’s riot-control Central Security Force were paid one-quarter the wages provided to army soldiers. Interior Ministry forces were intended only as the first line of defense against the people, the military being the regime’s ultimate bastion. So when demonstrations erupted in Cairo, the military only passively supported the security and intelligence forces, hoping that the protesters would be subdued. When those forces began to crack and the regime changed tactics by creating a security vacuum into which it poured a thug army of out-of-uniform officers and criminal hirelings, the military still acted far more ambivalently than its Tunisian counterpart. While the army apparently allowed some of the intimidation to proceed, even going so far as participating in the abduction and detention of some protesters, it also cracked down on some of the hired thugs. Its soldiers appeared sympathetic to the demonstrators, thereby preserving the army’s positive image. But in the United States Egyptian officers-in-training remained absolutely silent about the events, and they certainly did not cheer on the protesters as their Tunisian colleagues had done.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed effective control of the country on February 10, the day before Vice President Suleiman announced President Mubarak’s abdication. It then began issuing proclamations as if the clock had been wound back to 1952. The reason is clear: It still has an entire regime to defend, even without its evicted President.

The Egyptian army also differs from that of Tunisia in terms of overall structure. The tenth-largest military in the world, it is vastly oversized. The army possesses more than 4,000 main battle tanks, while the air force, with 600 combat aircraft, is the fourth-largest operator of F-16 fighter jets in the world. The peace dividend expected when Egypt signed its treaty with Israel in March 1979 never materialized. Despite cutting back its total manpower by half, the Egyptian military never became the lean, professional force that could effectively serve the nation’s interests in border control, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping operations and interoperability with allied military forces. The Egyptian military remained bloated, its officer core indulged, its forces unable to participate effectively in joint operations and its atavistic mission of preparing for a war against Israel essentially unchanged.

In reality, it has not prepared for war. Training is desultory. Maintenance is profoundly inadequate and, like logistical support, heavily dependent upon the United States. Some of the equipment Egypt obtains gratis from the United States as a result of the $1.3 billion in annual military assistance is not competitive with that of Israel or even other Arab states, for that matter, even though in some cases it is substantially more expensive. These platforms are not competitive because the Ministry of Defense, ever attentive to the threat of a coup, does not want capacities that would enable lateral communication within the officer corps. The Ministry also wants extensive assembly in Egypt to support its inefficient military industries. This means, for example, that the locally assembled M1-A1 Abrams tank is considerably more expensive than the American-manufactured version, despite Egypt’s much lower average labor costs.

Moreover, the Defense Minister, Field Marshall Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who currently heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has refused to sign congressionally required agreements with the United States that prohibit the transfer of state-of-the-art technology to third parties. This means that Egypt’s F-16s lack important communications upgrades, preventing them from interoperating with similar aircraft in the American, Saudi and other friendly Arab air forces. Why has Tantawi refused to sign these agreements? Because part of the understanding with President Mubarak was that the Egyptian military be permitted to establish its own economic empire, some of whose profits are used to cushion retirements and offer other benefits to ensure the loyalty of the officer corps. The military exists, in short, not so much to fight or serve national security interests as to support the regime (which, again, is hard to distinguish from the military itself).

The flaw in this grand design was that Mubarak sought to reconcile two sprawling patronage empires: one within the military and the other leading down from his son Gamal. Contests between the military and Gamal over the presidential succession inherently involved a struggle over resources, and Gamal’s coterie was steadily gaining the upper hand, as father Hosni (and, perhaps even more energetically, mother Suzanne) favored his son to succeed him rather than Omar Suleiman or some other officer. Thus when the Mubarak regime ran into trouble, the military saw that it could defeat its presidential rival and regain control over economic assets that it believed rightfully belonged to it. One of military’s first moves once power was effectively in its hands was to seize the assets of Gamal’s cronies. It also rode herd over the other security forces. Minister of the Interior Habib al-Adly was placed under arrest, while his various security forces were subordinated directly to the military. The military also selected al-Adly’s replacement from among the top commanders of State Security. For good measure, the military then dismissed the head of the Central Security Force, General Hassan Abd al-Rahman, declaring that he would be investigated for “crimes of torture.”

So the Egyptian military has remained in the saddle during the first phase of turbulence, jettisoning political baggage that the mass uprising rendered too heavy. But more turbulence is sure to follow, and staying in the saddle could well prove difficult. The Supreme Council consists of handpicked Mubarak loyalists whom protestors perceive as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Indeed, the chief purpose of continued gatherings of protesters in Midan al-Tahrir is to put incumbents on notice that they must, like Ben Ali’s Ministers in Tunisia, get out of the way for the new political order in the making. They also want to consign the once-ruling National Democratic Party to the dustbin of history, as was its equivalent in Tunisia.

For the moment, the military and its Supreme Committee possess substantial resources. The institution is central to the didactic nationalist historiography that has been propagated in school textbooks and by museums, national holidays and even the sporting events that the military sponsors throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of ex-conscripts learned their trades in the military’s economic enterprises, which employ additional hundreds of thousands. It provides patronage to scores of politicians in the form of military enterprises located in their constituencies.

However, the Supreme Committee, and thus the military itself, is vulnerable in considerable measure because it has been overplaying its hand. Instead of reaching out to the civilian opposition, it has sought to dictate terms to it, grudgingly parceling out limited reforms under intensifying pressure for more substantial change. As in Tunisia, a committee for constitutional reform was created. Headed by Tariq al-Bishri, an Islamist intellectual, the eight-man committee also includes a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but no representatives from any other opposition entity. In response to criticisms that the committee has an Islamist bias, the Supreme Committee reached out to Munir Fakhry Abd al-Nour, scion of a major Coptic family and a leading figure in the all but moribund Wafd Party, awarding him the inconsequential portfolio of Tourism Minister in the new cabinet. But the impression remains that the Supreme Committee is seeking to divide the opposition by favoring Islamists—an obviously perilous tactic if the current military leadership should ever lose hold of the reins. That seems to reflect the thinking behind the March 19 constitutional referendum, in which the military and the Muslim Brotherhood became de facto allies.

Unlike the Tunisian commission studying political reform and debating the virtues of a presidential versus a parliamentary regime, or other ways of balancing against excessive presidential power, the interim military authority instructed the Egyptian constitutional committee to take up the revision of only a handful of articles, thereby leaving intact the overwhelming bulk of the 35 articles that assign powers to the President. The intent may be to ensure that parliament remains subordinate to the executive and that the incoming President will be someone who will not transgress on domains claimed by the military. The military’s preferred candidate, at least for the time being, appears to be former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, whose present legitimacy is due to his professed nationalist beliefs, his leadership of the Arab League and the fact that Mubarak had dismissed him from his post because of his popularity and semi-independent views.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Committee’s first cabinet made only marginal concessions to the opposition, retaining Mubarak loyalists in the key portfolios of defense, interior, justice and foreign affairs and assigning less consequential portfolios to technocrats. But ongoing demonstrations in Midan al-Tahrir finally forced the Supreme Committee to jettison Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq and all but one of the remaining Mubarak loyalists, that one minister significantly being Sayid Mashal, the Minister of State for Military Production—the individual directly overseeing the military’s economic empire. In short, this looks like a military reluctant to relinquish its authority and the considerable benefits associated with it.

The Supreme Committee’s apparent intent is to hold on tight until the revolutionary wave passes. When it does, there is every reason to believe that the military will insist on a civilian order that allows it to return to the barracks, safe in the assurance that it will continue to dictate national security policies, that its internal management and economic enterprises will remain beyond civilian oversight, let alone control, and that its direct ties to and support from the United States will remain unaffected. Meanwhile, however, the military is under pressure to allow full-scale investigation of the “economic crimes” of the ancien régime. Of course, it has been deeply involved in many of them, so it is understandably reluctant to allow the core of the anti-Mubarak movement, such as Mohamed El Baradei’s Movement for Change, to play a leading role. Such actions would probably ultimately lead to demands for the genuine subordination of the military to civilian control. A parliament with real power would also, sooner or later, serve as the institutional vehicle to bring the military under at least some control.

In all of these areas, the military is meeting substantial resistance. And like other revolutions, this one is mobilizing those lower down in the social order, moving from freedom to bread and dignity for all as the rallying cries grow louder. Egypt’s military may try to ride this tiger by calling for a renewed economic nationalism, as suggested by the inclusion in the cabinet of former International Labour Organization economist Samir Radwan as Minister of Finance and the Nasserist Gouda Abd al-Khaleq as Minister of Social Solidarity. But renewed economic autarky would condemn Egypt to economic disaster. The Supreme Committee has already jeopardized the country’s economic future by charging liberal economic elite members such as former Minister of Trade and Industry Rashid Muhammad Rashid with stealing state funds. Rashid and others like him are the bridge to the global economy. Scapegoating them will cut Egypt off from foreign direct investment and intensify economic pressure on the regime. In short, by seeking to carefully control the pace and extent of both political and economic change, the Supreme Committee risks alienating large segments of newly mobilized political forces and further eroding an already fragile economy.

Unlike the Tunisian military, then, which appears to relish its role as the midwife of democracy, the Egyptian military wants to ensure that real democracy is stillborn. That it should do so results primarily from the facts that it has dominated the state since 1952 and that the Supreme Committee, led by Mubarak’s protégés, can envision no other role for itself. The United States, having been complicit in the military’s oversized political role and hence hesitant now to be on the right side of history by handing power over to civilians, has a special responsibility to help facilitate such a transition.

In Tunisia the task facing the United States is quite different. The close but quite limited military cooperation of the past several decades deserves to be upgraded, if Tunisia is willing. One thing the Tunisian armed forces has needed is helicopters and night-vision equipment, which would help them stop mercenaries supported by Muammar Qaddafi from infiltrating from Libya to target Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution in addition, of course, to the Libyan people themselves. Tunisia’s 14 operational helicopters constituted a crucial instrument in the efforts to neutralize Ben Ali’s snipers, who tried to terrorize the Tunisian people and avenge their toppled dictator. Those copters could use some new friends. At the same time, happily, Tunisia needs no American lessons about subordinating the military to civilian control.

The Tunisian military also needs its routine military training exercises to be upgraded. The West would be wise to do this in parallel with Tunisia’s promotion to a more advanced partnership with the European Union, since its emerging democracy still desires an offset to French influence. This should be a simple matter for Washington; the Tunisians are perfectly capable of taking care of their own political order.

Tunisia is also more prepared than any country in the region for technology transfers, which would help with employment and improve their capabilities in military interoperability, peacekeeping and disaster relief. As the Arab country that already spends the most on research and development proportionate to national income, Tunisia may also benefit from technological spin-offs into the broader economy.

Tunisia is thus a potential model for Arab development and a showcase for happier relations with the West. U.S. interests are much better served by a critical democratic partner than they have been by a sweet little rogue dictator like General Ben Ali.

As for Egypt, the Obama Administration needs to signal that in the future it will prefer to interact with civilians at least as much as it has with military and security officials in the past. This does not require ostentatious, clumsy interventions into Egyptian politics, which the military could then use to discredit “disloyal” civilians. Among other things, the Administration could use presidential rhetoric to emphasize Egypt’s new role in leading a democratic Arab world, high-level meetings with Egyptian civilian figures, appropriate assistance by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and inclusion of the parliament in the bilateral relationship. This sort of diplomatic body language would give heart to Egypt’s newly emerging civilian political elite.

The United States also needs to profoundly reconfigure its military assistance to Egypt. Its historical justification as a pay-off for maintaining peace with Israel is as dubious as continuing military assistance to Israel in the face of its present government’s intransigent settlement policy. Foreign assistance to both countries, which is now almost exclusively military in nature, should be reduced, presumably in more or less equal measure.

But if the United States cannot muster the political will to make those cuts, it can make other adjustments that will have a favorable impact on civil-military relations in Egypt. The United States should place restrictions on its military assistance so that it is no longer primarily consumed by the procurement of expensive and largely irrelevant weapons systems. Egyptian civilians need to be drawn into a review of national security policy, so that procurement can be matched with Egypt’s real defense requirements rather than harnessed entirely to the fiction of fighting an all-out land battle with Israel. The military has shunned responsibilities for key defense missions such as humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, border patrol and disaster relief precisely because civilians in government and civil society have been unable to contribute to the formulation and implementation of national security policy. Military assistance should go through parliament rather than be handed directly to the Ministry of Defense, as it has in the past. Egypt should also empower the parliament’s Committee on National Security to oversee the military. The Ministry of Defense does not have a single civilian in an executive position, nor does the General Audit Agency have authority over the military budget. These are profound deficiencies in oversight that Egypt’s newly emerging civilian leadership needs to be encouraged to address, and that USAID and other international development agencies could help remedy if so invited.

The United States also needs to rebalance its training of the Egyptian officer corps, which has heretofore emphasized technical subjects associated with major warfare more than equivalent militaries do. Training regimens should include such areas as peacekeeping, disaster relief, search and rescue, and border surveillance. It should also emphasize the broader content of standard professional military education, especially with regard to civil-military relations.

The United States, in sum, needs to follow a two-pronged strategy of upgrading civilian capacities to discharge duties required in democracies, including overseeing the military, while helping to modernize the Egyptian armed forces both in the functions they perform and in their perceptions of an appropriate relationship with civilian political institutions. We need to replace the outdated, Cold War-era legacy of securitized relationships with Egypt and other Arab countries with a new approach based on more broadly based bilateral relationships involving democratic institutions. As it was during the Kennedy years, the evolving U.S. relationship with Tunisia may serve as a model.

Robert Springborg is professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and program manager for the Middle East at the Center for Civil-Military Relations. Clement M. Henry is professor emeritus of government and Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin. They are co-authors of Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East. The views expressed are those of the authors and not those of the Department of Defense or any other U.S. government agency.