Analysis by Cam McGrath
HAVANA TIMES, Feb 8 (IPS) — Make no mistake about it – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will stay in power only as long as his army generals deem it to be in their best interest.
“Until now, the only guarantee for Mubarak to remain in power has been the support of the military,” says Said Okasha, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “If the military withdraws its support, it will end very quickly for him.”
The Egyptian military has been a central pillar of the Egyptian state since the Free Officers movement overthrew the monarchy in 1952. All four of Egypt’s post-revolutionary presidents have military backgrounds, as do many of the country’s governors, local administrators, and public sector factory owners.
With nearly half a million men, the military is Egypt’s most powerful institution. But it would be wrong to think of it simply as a massive defense complex. The army is deeply integrated into the national economy and workforce, engaged in civil works, running businesses, and the production of everything from weapons to tea kettles.
Experts say the military is still firmly behind Mubarak, yet is reluctant to use force to remove anti-government protesters, which would tarnish its carefully guarded image as a protector of the people. There is little doubt, however, that the generals are weighing their options to determine which scenario offers the best political and economic perks.
“Mubarak has proven that he has the military institution on his side, and because of this the army has lost some of its credibility on the street,” Okasha told IPS. “But the military may eventually switch sides if it thinks that’s in its interest.”
One thing Mubarak has going for him is a decorated military background – he trained as a fighter pilot and served as an air force commander during Egypt’s 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.
By contrast, potential presidential candidates – including former UN nuclear watchdog head Mohamed ElBaradei, Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa and El-Ghad party leader Ayman Nour – have diplomatic and legal backgrounds. And the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most organized political opposition in the country, is universally reviled by the military high command.
“Egypt’s military institution has a special culture; it only respects a leader who comes from its ranks,” explains Okasha. “The president also serves as the head of the military, so it would be difficult for them to accept a civilian president.”
The lack of a military pedigree was seen as major obstacle to Mubarak’s son, 47-year-old Gamal, succeeding him. One U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks quotes an unnamed analyst who claims that army officers told him “the military does not support Gamal and if Mubarak dies in office, the military would seize power rather than allow Gamal to succeed his father.”
Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 75, who contemptuous junior officers refer to as “Mubarak’s poodle”, is reportedly in failing health and has shown no intention of stepping into the president’s shoes. In March 2008, the U.S. embassy in Cairo gave a blunt assessment of the field marshal’s capacities ahead of his scheduled visit to the United States.
“Washington interlocutors should be prepared to meet an aged and change-resistant Tantawi,” says a cable signed by then-ambassador Francis J.
Ricciardone. “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.”
Egyptian anti-government protesters have tried to win over the military to their cause. Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have treated soldiers with deference, showering them with water bottles, food and Twinkies.
“The army and the people are united!” they chanted during Tantawi’s brief visit to the square last week.
But the protesters – and opposition leaders riding their movement – also recognize that the military’s power and prestige must be preserved in any post-Mubarak scenario. ElBaradei, for instance, has proposed that Mubarak step down and an interim three-man council, including a member of the military, rule until free and fair elections can be held.
Friction between the military elite and the ruling party’s crony capitalists could work in the protesters’ favor. Upon retirement, generals are traditionally given large tracts of land and command of companies engaged in construction, energy, agriculture and tourism. The meteoric rise of a coterie of neoliberal tycoons with close ties to Gamal Mubarak has created competition, and resentment, among the top brass.
“The military is jealous because they are no longer the only big bosses in the country,” says retired major-general Mohamed Kadry Said, a military adviser.
Toppling the Mubarak regime could put an end to the liberal economic policies and privatization that threaten the military’s financial interests. But why switch sides when the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is in retreat and prosecutors are chasing the regime’s corrupt business tycoons? The attenuated power of the ruling party will almost certainly lead to an expansion of the military’s political and economic influence.
Egypt’s top brass might be willing to sacrifice the wildly unpopular Mubarak in favor of the moderately unpopular Vice-President Omar Suleiman, a former army general and intelligence chief – and a long-time confidant of Mubarak.
Suleiman has assumed a more presidential role since his appointment as second-in-command on Jan. 29, while Mubarak has largely faded from public view.
U.S. diplomats describe Suleiman as a pragmatist with “vision and influence”, but also know his dark side, including his key role in the CIA’s rendition program. Importantly, for Egypt’s military, the regime’s continued existence under Suleiman would ensure that the U.S. would continue to provide about 1.3 billion dollars in military aid each year. The aid is conditional on maintaining peace with Israel, which was a big part of Suleiman’s previous job description.
The Obama Administration has endorsed the idea of a Suleiman-led transition government – and Egyptian generals know transitions can be delayed and free elections rigged. Upon taking office in 1981, Mubarak pledged to serve only two terms – he’s now served five and has maintained “temporary” emergency laws that have restricted freedoms for nearly 30 years.
While negotiations continue between the regime and its opponents, the military is quietly consolidating its power. Whatever the outcome, Mubarak will remain in power until the military is certain its political and economic interests are secure.