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The 1952 precedent: Egypt and military rule

Military sources say popular sentiment around Egypt's military has made it hard to disengage from politics; others wonder if army can juggle multiple roles

Dina Ezzat , Monday 7 Oct 2013
Army Chief General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (C) attends the military funeral service of Police General Nabil Farag, who was killed on Thursday in Kerdasa, at Al-Rashdan Mosque in Cairo's Nasr City district on 20 September, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)
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Four decades after the military's celebrated victory against Israel, the Egyptian army has once again been asked to play the political role it first assumed in 1952 when it toppled a decaying monarchy to establish the first republic.

As Egyptians celebrated the day in 1973 when Egypt's army crossed the Suez into Israel-occupied Sinai, their revelry carried an additional message: a call for the army chief to assume the presidency through elections or "public authorisation."

"I am joining friends and relatives to call on Sisi to be Egypt's president because today, more than ever, the nation needs a strong military to piece together our broken country and push us forward," said Nadia, a banker from Heliopolis in her late 40s.

"Today, my call is 'Sisi is my president'," Nadia concluded.

Army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is credited by many Egyptians as having 'fulfilled the public's will' to remove former president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's only freely-elected civil president.

Assuming the presidency on 30 June 2012, Morsi chose El-Sisi – the former head of military intelligence – as his defense minister only two months later.

 "When president Morsi chose El-Sisi, he thought he was putting an efficient military leader as the army's head. He wanted El-Sisi to modernise the army and to motivate it back into shape after some lazy years at the end of Hosni Mubarak's rule," said a Muslim Brotherhood figure who asked that his name be withheld.

"The choice to appoint El-Sisi was about removing Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan [Mubarak's top brass], but it was also about giving the army its intended military mandate outside of politics. Unfortunately, things happened the other way around, and the choice of El-Sisi ultimately meant that the army was heavily involved in politics, to the point of removing the democratically-elected civil president through a military coup," the Muslim Brotherhood source added.

El-Sisi – flanked by leading political and religious figures – announced Morsi's removal on national television on 3 July. The announcement was deemed a coup by the Muslim Brotherhood and by other international forces, including the African Union, which subsequently suspended Egypt's membership.

Western capitals considered the move a curious political development. They were unsure whether the massive 30 June anti-Morsi demonstrations justified the military's decision to remove Morsi, rather than to simply hold early presidential elections as was first demanded.

Despite these objections to Morsi's ouster, for many Egyptians – especially those from the heart of the middle class that initiated the January 25 2011 Revolution – El-Sisi is 'Egypt's saviour.'

"He saved us from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, who did not know the ABC's of running a state, and who only cared about making financial and professional gains. The country was falling apart and the army rescued it, just as it did in 1973 when it ended the 1967 occupation. It was the same spirit of regaining Egypt," said Hussein, a civil engineer from Mohandessin.

The parallel between the 6 October crossing and the 3 July removal of Morsi has been a pervasive message emanating from state-run and private television and newspapers.  The connection was even invoked by Jihan Sadat, the wife of late-president Anwar Sadat, during a televised address during Sunday's festivities.

The connection drawn between 6 October and 3 July is the sequel to an earlier parallel made between El-Sisi and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, one of Egypt's most popular presidents who led the 1952 revolution against the monarchy. Just as 3 July was equated with 6 October, the 30 June call that "Morsi is not my president" has been depicted as analogous to 1952.

In both cases, argues leftist activist Ahmed Said, the people's glorification of the army as 'the saviour' is prominent.

"It is true that the army is, at times, the saviour. But we can't forget that when given too much credit, the army, as embodied by the military rule we have been living under since 1952 – with the exception of one year under Morsi – makes huge mistakes. The 1967 defeat is one example that should not be forgotten," Said added.

According to some retired military generals, the 1967 defeat was the inevitable result of the army's deviation from its original mission: to protect the country and its borders.

"It was not about Gamal Abdel-Nasser's rule, because Nasser went from being a military leader to a truly national leader that the people still adore. Rather, it was that the army was running all aspects of the country and putting itself above criticism. In the end, the army was not doing its real job," said one retired military officer regarding the defeat.

He added that the same failures apply to Sadat and Mubarak, in different ways.  Following the 1973 war, Sadat thought he could act without restrictions under the pretext of the "military victory that he led." According to the retired officer, Mubarak was the same. Mubarak "was in office for 30 years despite his limited capacity to rule only because of the army's support," the officer said.

Mohamed Naguib, the military officer chosen as Egypt's first president after the 1952 revolution, was removed after only two years in power. Some say Naguib's removal was due to his desire to bring the military back to the barracks and allow civilians to rule.  To this, the Free Officers, including Nasser, could not agree. They did not want the military to retire from politics only to have the newly-established republic's fate in the hands of a pro-monarchy politician.

Since that moment, Egypt has been led by military rulers. Nasser chose Sadat as his vice president, and Sadat subsequently chose Mubarak, one of the top generals in the October war, to rule under him.

"When Mubarak declined to appoint a military man as vice president and instead showed interest in handing power to his younger son, the army became apprehensive. They started to work against him. Mubarak tried so hard to appease the army, granting them extra financial benefits, but it did not work. This is why the army sided with the January 25 Revolution: to end the succession dilemma," a former minister under Mubarak who requested anonymity said.

Today, military sources say that it is just as difficult for the military to disengage from politics now as it was right after the 1952 Revolution or on the eve of the 1973 war.

According to one military source, it is not only the military who thinks this way. "Many want El-Sisi to be president," he said. Today, he added, "no one would dare" shout cheers of 'down with the military' in the face of "millions of Egyptians" who sing the army's praises.

Whether or not El-Sisi will run for president remains uncertain. Many suggest that the army chief is toying with the idea, but is also apprehensive of the international outcry that might pitch Morsi's ouster as an attempt by the top general to rule.

"He is still thinking about it, and there is added pressure on him as Egyptians renew their pride for the glorious army sacrifices of the October war. But he has not decided yet, and he is inclined not to run," said the same military source.

Other military sources say that if Sisi does not run, another military figure would not run in his place. Some suggest that Sisi would not support a military candidate so as to maintain the army's image as concerned only with "key interventions."

Many military personnel are determined to support Sisi's – or indeed any military figure's – presidential run, sources suggest. They argue that it is ultimately the army who must fix Egypt's broken pieces, and that the experiment with a civilian presidency was unsuccessful.

According to political scientist Hassan Nafiaa, the military's extended presence in the political scene is due to the work of a small group, rather than the direct outcome of any political or military development.

Sadat's proclamation that the "October war was the last of all wars" allowed for an exaggerated political keenness in some military quarters, Nafiaa admits. However, he insists this political role was not at all inevitable. Nafiaa notes, in particular, that "despite the uncontested military victory in 1973, the army did not fully win the war. Egypt only retrieved Sinai following a peace deal that imposed some very unfair terms on Egypt."

"Military rule has been here since 1952, and the 1973 war only accentuated an existing fact. However, we need to consider today whether this situation has been favourable to the interests of a country that is facing serious socio-economic challenges."

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