Interview: Khaled Fahmy on army intervention and Egypt's future
Mohammed Saad, Tuesday 23 Jul 2013
Historian Khaled Fahmy talks to Ahram Online on Egypt's past and future, argues 'role of people' played major difference in army's actions during two regime changes in 1952 and 2013


Sixty-one years separate the 1952 revolution, which overthrew Egypt's 150-year monarchy, from the toppling of former president Mohamed Morsi. On 23 July, 1952, the Free Officers, a group of army officers, moved from their barracks and forced King Farouk I to step down and ended all forms of British rule, marking Egypt's first military intervention.

The last military intervention took place 20 days ago, on 3 July, when the army deposed president Mohammed Morsi in response to protests by millions of Egyptians across the country.

During the 61 years since the 1952 revolution, Egypt witnessed radical changes that affected the way the army interacts with politics.

Historian Khaled Fahmy talks to Ahram Online about the similarities and differences between those two interventions and the history of the Egyptian army since its establishment in 1811. He reveals new facts about the high cost Egyptians paid to build a homogenous army.

Fahmy is the chair of the History Department at the American University in Cairo. Before joining AUC, he served as associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

He has published two books in Arabic, including All the Pasha’s Men and The Body and Modernity: Essays in the History of Medicine and Law in Modern Egypt.

Ahram Online: How do you see the relation between what happened on 23 July 1952, when the military intervened to topple King Farouk I, and the military intervention on 3 July 2013 that toppled the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi?

Khaled Fahmy: The major difference between both events is the role of the Egyptian people. In 1952, the army moved on its own; people did not call on the military to intervene and topple the king nor were they informed about it. On the contrary, people were summoned by the military after the coup to give it popular legitimacy.

What happened in 1952 qualified as a revolution nearly two years after the Free Officers forced the King to step down when they garnered the necessary popular acceptance to their move.

What we witnessed on 30 June is different. It started with mass protests that spread all over the country, and then the army acted in response. The legitimacy of this military intervention derived from the people’s action.

This is a fundamental difference. Studying the army's actions in relation to two different regimes – the Royal regime in 1952 and the Islamist regime in 2013 –isn’t possible without taking into account the role of the people.

AO: How do you describe what happened on 3 July?

KF: I can’t give a clear answer, but what I can say is that we had an overpowering move by the people. It sent a clear message to the regime that "your legitimacy has fallen." This is a very hard message because those who were in power were elected; their legitimacy was built upon the ballot box.

What the message implied is that the legitimacy of a regime couldn’t be merely reduced to a set of formal electoral procedures. The legitimacy of this regime fell because it violated the constitution and the state institutions, eventually building resistance against them. The huge political vacuum, as the regime lost the support of the institutions of the state, signaled the army to take action to save the entity of the state.

The hard question now is on the legitimacy of the army’s intervention.

If we took 'legitimacy' in its literal and lawful terms, this would be considered a coup d’état. However, if we questioned this procedural understanding of legitimacy, taking into account the profound message the people sent, then a new legitimacy has been constituted. We can say that the army had to move and bow to the popular will. The legitimacy of this intervention derived from the will of the people.

This raises another question: Will this army bow to the demands of the people or will it take advantage of the current political vacuum to impose its own agenda?
I’m aware that the army did not only move to defend the national security and freedoms but also to defend its own interests and aims.

The challenge we face now is how to insist on our demand to have the right to control and observe all of the state institutions, including the military and the presidency, but this is still unmarked territory.

AO: Taking into account the different tactics of intervention that the army followed on 3 July, is the Egypt army of 2013 different from the army of 1952?

KF: Yes, we may say it’s a different army. This is a new generation with a different doctrine and working on different circumstances. I believe the urgent question now isn’t how the doctrine of this army has changed, but about the relation between the army and society. This question could be posed not only about the1952 and 2013 interventions, but about the founding moment of the Egyptian army back in 1811.

AO: Historically how do you see this relation since the founding moment in 1811 through 1952 and 2013?

KF: Before Mohammed Ali Pasha established what we know now as the ‘Egyptian Army’, there was no existence of a 'National Army;' there were the Mamluk Princes, who had something like small private armies, and each of them represented a centre of power.

These different centres of power were not fighting each other all the time as some put forward. They were the ones who preserved the Egyptian economy before the

French campaign in Egypt. However, they started to combat and fight each other during the 30 years that preceded the rule of Mohammed Ali Pasha.

At some point the society became aware that the civil strife was damaging. This was the moment of Mohammed Ali Pasha, when the society decided to stop the civil strife and give the exclusive right to keep and bear arms to one entity – the state.

Did this social agreement happen? I say, it did not. There was never such a social contract between citizens and the state. The civil strife stopped and a central administration of the state and national army was established. This had the virtue of preserving what we now know as ‘Egypt.’

Yet, this modern state was never put under the control of the society since its establishment, even during the liberal era of the 1920’s.

In 1952, the army did what Mohammed Ali Pasha did in 1811. It stopped the crisis from developing and offered economic reforms. The state then said that it would work to achieve social justice as much as it can and in return people would give up on their political and constitutional demands.

When we look at the relationship development between the army and the public from this perspective, we see that the army, the main pillar of the Egyptian state, was never put under any supervision by society. There is not enough information on combat doctrine of the Egyptian Army, for instance, because we are not allowed to know much about the army.

We are not allowed to know how decisions are being made inside the army’s leadership.

AO: The Egyptian army dealt with the revolution in a different manner than other armies of Arab countries that also experienced revolutions, like in Syria and Libya. How do you interpret this difference?

KF: I think the different reactions of these other armies relate to some extent to local reasons, including the tribal, sectarian and sometimes the regional nature that the armies of Syrian and Libya acted according to. The homogenous Egyptian army that does not know any tribal or sectarian divisions wasn’t easy to achieve.

In Egypt, we paid the same high price now being paid by Syrians and Libyans, but we did 200 years ago. The Egyptian army was established at a very high cost of violence, during a time when the state tried to tame the different factions of Egyptian society and establish a homogenous army we see today.

Two-hundred years ago, Egypt was divided tremendously when the army was being established. The grip of the central state was not as tight as it is now. There were different accents, traditions and large variations between the different faction and bringing them under rule of the central state required a very long process. There were attempts to revolt against this new entity, which is called the "central state," but it eventually won, and the strife was over.

Now, we don’t have these large variations within Egyptian society, even between Muslims and Christians. The Egyptian bureaucracy as well as the army became the melting pot of society, and it was the bureaucracy that stood against the aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood to control the state for their own interest.

AO: What role did the Egyptian army and bureaucracy play in toppling the Muslim Brotherhood?

KF: The Muslim Brotherhood had aims and goals beyond Egypt; the Egyptian bureaucracy works only inside this region and the aspirations of the Brotherhood jeopardises its field of domination, and thus it resisted them.

The Egyptian army and ruling institutions are very old and not the outcome of the past 20 or 30 years; they have their own set of rules and mechanisms. Threatening these rules and mechanisms is always met with violent resistance.

When the army says it is protecting the national security and intervened to prevent civil strife, at the same time there are some people among the ruling Brotherhood who are connected to forces outside Egypt, it implied their move was motivated by hazards that jeopardises the entity of the state itself.

AO: In 1952 the Egypt army had radical plans for political and economic change, do you think the military should present any plans for Egypt during this period of change? Do you think it would aspire to have the same role that the Turkish army played, as the guardian of the state and constitution, during the 70’s and 80’s of the past century?

KF: No, not at all, the army should only go back to its barracks. It should not present anything other than preserving security.

Unlike what people say in the famous chant "army and the people are one hand," the army and the people are two extremes.

The army has been trying to impose itself on the Egyptian public scene since a long time ago, aiming to play the role of the Turkish army as a guardian of the state and constitution. However, historically, the Egyptian army does not have the legacy of military victories that would allow it to build a self-legitimacy required to act like the Turkish army. It enjoyed a rich legacy of military victories since the Ottoman Empire and eventually resting on this self-legitimacy. None of the Egyptian military leaders, including General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi can claim such legacy.

There is no military leader in Egypt that can construct his legitimacy based on a military victory.

AO: From 1952 and until now, all of Egypt's presidents, except for Morsi, came from the military institution. Taking that into account, do you agree with the statement that Egypt has been ruled by the military throughout this period?

KF: I think we are over this question, but the military rule in Egypt is very different from countries like Chile or some of the African countries that witnessed military coupes. Military rule in Egypt was characterised by the patriarchal logic of notability.

The Egyptian army sees itself not as part of society, but rather above it.

The extent to which the Egyptian army takes a role in politics in the coming years depends on our ability to organise ourselves, but I don’t think that we’ve taken this course yet.

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