The Blog

Understanding the Egyptian Military

The agenda, ideology, and political orientation of the Egyptian military are often misunderstood - both inside and outside Egypt. The Egyptian military has always been recognized as the foundation of the modern Egyptian state, and though all Egyptians males are required to serve, few understand the leadership and what makes it tick.

The agenda, ideology, and political orientation of the Egyptian military are often misunderstood - both inside and outside Egypt. The Egyptian military has always been recognized as the foundation of the modern Egyptian state, and though all Egyptians males are required to serve, few understand the leadership and what makes it tick.

How the military sees itself

The Egyptian military sees itself as the protector of the Egyptian state from enemies domestic and foreign. The officer corps is nationalist - with their identities and historical frame of reference shaped in the Nasser era. They consider themselves patriots and Egyptian citizens before they are Muslims or Copts. They are highly sensitive to religious sectarianism and other forms of incitement which divide Egyptians and consequently clash with the military's sense of Egyptian identity - united as one nation regardless of religious affiliation. That said, the officer corps is overwhelmingly Muslim, and most are practicing and not particularly open-minded.

They also have a socialist-oriented outlook on economics and the social safety net, and are statist in outlook - that protection of the state supercedes personal liberties, ideological orientation, or any parochial interest.

January 25th and June 30th

The military believes it played a difficult but heroic role in the January 25, 2011 demonstrations which culminated in the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. From their perspective, they succeeded in amending the constitution based on a popular vote, then held free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections. They managed to hold the country together, despite the failings of the police force and other government institutions. They recognize that their popularity collapsed prior to handing power to Mohamed Morsi, and that they completely lost control of the narrative - to liberals, Islamists, and almost all political factions. They believe they were wrongly accused of violating human rights, being heavy handed, and attempting to manipulate the political process. That said, they recognize that their political inexperience was a liability, and that their then-leader, Field Marshall Tantawi, did not have a good ear for politics.

The younger members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - roughly the officers between the ages of 50-60 - and their contemporaries remained loyal to Field Marshall Tantawi and his deputy, Sami Enan, but were very disappointed with how the transition was managed and its impact of domestic image of the military. When Morsi outmaneuvered Tantawi and forced his retirement, Abdel-Fattah Al Sisi quickly worked to reorganize the Armed Forces. Among his early moves were forcing other senior officers - many of whom were over mandatory retirement age - into retirement.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood saw this as a sign that the military removing itself from politics, but in actuality they created a potentially more formidable foe. Sisi and most members of his leadership team are Western trained, primarily in the US, and have a much more sophisticated outlook on foreign affairs, the media, and politics. Most of these officers are religious, nationalist, and came from the middle class. They joined the military out of necessity - it offered a solid and honorable career. Many have educated their children abroad and discouraged them from joining the military.

They grew increasingly alarmed at President Morsi's management of Egyptian affairs. They concluded Morsi and the MB were incompetent and dangerous. They deeply disagreed with the Brotherhood's ideology - seeing it as encouraging sectarianism, intolerance, and divisiveness. They determined the MB ideology threatened the established narrative of modern Egyptian history and the notion of Egyptian citizenry. They opposed Morsi's foreign policy - particularly his warming of relations with Iran and, more threatening, his impotent response to Ethiopia's decision to construct a massive new dam on the Nile River. They saw Morsi as accelerating the decline in Egypt's international stature and regional influence. The also complained about the collapsing economy and lack of personal security. And, on the whole, concluded the MB was more focused on consolidating their own power rather than addressing issues that would benefit Egypt as a whole.

The military has had sharp disagreements with the secular opposition, including its leading figures - including Mohamed El Baradei. They thought the activists unfairly criticized them during the transition, were unrealistic in their demands, and failed repeatedly to organize as a electorally viable political force. But they also recognized the activists' ability to organize and shape a narrative - even if those skills were utilized at SCAF's expense.

In recent months it became apparent that the interests of the secular opposition movements and political parties - namely Tamarrod and the National Salvation Front - all overlapped to a certain extent. They won over the established religious authorities - the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar and the Coptic Pope. And they were able to convince the beleaguered police force to join the opposition, and won the support of the Salafi Nour Party, which has proved to be a wily and pragmatic political force. The military "elders" who have largely been put to pasture would not have been able to pull together the coalition the succeeded in ousting Mohamed Morsi.

They also are more aware of the importance of public relations, and have done a far better job of managing the storyline and optics than two years ago. They are very concerned about how they are covered in the American and British media, and are particularly sensitive when their machinations are described as a "coup." It was telling that General Al-Sisi's press conference included the Coptic Pope, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the Salafi Nour Party, and a member of the Tamarrod leadership.

What they want:

1) Prevent the collapse of the Egyptian state: President Morsi's illiberal moves clearly convinced most Egyptians - including the military - that they did not believe in an inclusive state. The military believed Morsi's apparent unwillingness to listen or compromise with those with whom he and the Brotherhood disagreed was creating a hostile and charged climate. He failed to rebuild the police and re-establish law and order; threatened the independence of the judiciary; and incited sectarianism. The military's focus for the time being will be on the Brotherhood - making sure their leaders do not incite their followers - which they estimate at less than 10% (not including fellow travelers) - to violence. The Egyptian military and intelligence believes the Muslim Brotherhood has significant weapons cache and could very well use them.

2) Make sure Egypt has a functioning government: They were increasingly alarmed by the inability of Morsi to make the necessary decisions allowing the government to function. They were also disturbed by the MB's focus on their own interests rather than those of the state -in business and governance. As the transition proceeds, they want to make sure there is consensus on the constitution and political "rules of the game" - and that the government is capable of making decisions and making sure they are implemented. They remain unconvinced that the opposition parties are capable of governing Egypt - as they lack sufficient support, coherent visions, and experience. The could live with a divided government between executive (secular) and legislative (Islamist) branches, so long as a secular president has more authority and the Islamists have minimal ability to implement certain policies, particularly those related to national security.

3) Protect the idea of Egyptian citizenship/Prevent religion from being used in a divisive manner: It was telling that Gen. Al-Sisi's press conference included the Coptic Pope and the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar. They do not necessarily oppose Islamist involvement in government, so long as it does not lead to instability. They have good working relations with the Salafi Nour Party - and could see a scenario in which the Nour Party (and a couple small splinter Salafi parties) could win a plurality in parliamentary elections. They assume the president will be from the secular camp.

4) Restore law and order: The virtual absence of police since the fall of Mubarak has been a lingering problem. As they have a relatively small military police force, the police must become more visible and effective as it has led to soaring crime rates, including sexual assault, armed robbery, and flourishing organized crime. There appears no easy solution to this problem, but the military hopes that Morsi's ousting will entice the police to do its job.

5) Prevent the collapse of the Egyptian economy: Gross mismanagement and indecision has led to minimal growth and all the other ailments of a listless economy. The Brotherhood has no plan to encourage growth, repair infrastructure, or encourage trade and investment. The military will not play a role in economic affairs, but will look to the business community and technocrats to man the economic helm.

6) Promote basic democratic rights: These include minority rights, women's rights freedom of the press were not actively supported by the government. While the military is not overwhelming concerned with these issues, they understand how they impact their image and the government's legitimacy. They will want the government to take some action to demonstrate commitment to these issues.

7) Inclusive decision-making and consensus on key issues: The military believes Egyptian democracy can only succeed through consensus which requires compromise by all parties and the protection of political minority rights. The Egyptian army will encourage, and if necessary pressure, all political factions to work together for the sake of the nation. This is particularly important on the constitution.

8) Implement the Road Map: The Egyptian road map is designed to provide a limited transition period which will allow the various political factions to work together and move toward writing a constitution that reflects the views of all Egyptians, establishing an election law that is fair, and holding free and fair elections. The military fully understands the necessity - for optical reasons if nothing else - that in the transition, a civilian government should lead the nation. The Egyptian military will neither rule nor govern, but lead from behind the curtain.

9) Guarantee free and fair elections: The military believe the coming elections must be credible and that all Egyptians must participate in the process. This is necessary to provide legitimacy and to diminish the legitimacy of Morsi and the Brotherhood. There remains concern, however, that the opposition parties are too weak to win elections, particularly at the parliamentary level.

10) Restore the image of the Egyptian Armed Forces: Al Sisi and other military leaders were bitter over how quickly the Egyptian military's image was tarnished in wake of the Mubarak's fall. So in part their actions this week were an attempt to restore their luster and re-instill the idea that the military, and only the military, is the irreplaceable foundation of the Egyptian state. Obviously, they planned carefully as to when and how they would force Morsi from power - and wisely understood that their move was only made possible because of the success of the Tamarrod campaign. They understood the critical importance of justifying their moves, particularly to the Egyptian public.

11) Not about military benefits: The military is not motivated by their own self-interest and position in the Egyptian power structure. In fact, in a failed attempt to woo the military, Morsi granted ever greater concessions in terms of power to the military than had Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood also did nothing to threaten their budget or business interests. The military never felt personally threatened by Morsi. And going forward, no political party will be in a position to threaten the military in the near future, so this is not a primary concern.