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The Egyptian Military and the 2011 Revolution

[24 November 2011, the Arabic Reads: [24 November 2011, the Arabic Reads: "down with SCAF" "Revolutionary Socialists". Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim]

The Egyptian military has emerged as one of the most powerful and influential actors since the inception of the modern Egyptian state. Despite this, since the late 1970s, there has been relatively little work that contextualizes and historicizes the military, even though it has continued to play a role in Egyptian political and economic life, as an institution and a community of elites.[1] The importance of such a line of inquiry cannot be overstated in our current moment. Specifically, it could shed a great deal of light on the conditions that deepened the military’s engagement in politics in recent years, most notably during the 2011 eighteen-day uprising and its aftermath.

For example, one way of understanding the position the military took vis-à-vis the 2011 revolution is to analyze the ties between the military and other members of the ruling class in Egypt, particularly in light of realignments among political actors over time. The question of interest is: What power shifts have occurred within the ruling class and how have they generated constraints on its cohesion and ability to govern Egypt? More specifically, how did these shifts within the ruling class relate to the societal tensions that contributed to the 2011 uprising and the military’s intervention? It is useful to conceptualize the military and the security forces as forming part of the ruling class, alongside other elites. When an imbalance or major shift occurs within this power dynamic, changes within the ruling class may lead to policies exerting economic and social pressure on the population. This in turn can lead to unrest, weakening the ability of the ruling class to govern—a shift that has serious ramifications for the entire ruling class.

This article puts the military’s decision to break ways with Egypt’s civilian ruling elite in 2011 in historical context, and analyzes the position of the military vis-à-vis new, emergent groups within the ruling class in the 1990s. It argues that shifts in the power dynamics within the ruling class can help us understand both why the 2011 revolution occurred when it did, and why the military had an incentive to intervene in 2011. Leading up to 2011, the growing influence of a new group of elites not only challenged the military’s position within the ruling class, but also set the stage for the 2011 uprising and the subsequent intervention of the military.

The Egyptian Military

The 1952 coup, often popularly understood as a revolution, marks the beginning of official Egyptian independence. On 23 July 1952, a movement within the military known as the Free Officers seized power and ousted King Farouk, a process that would soon end the British occupation of Egypt. The Free Officers formed the Revolution Command Council and declared a transitional period. In 1956 a new constitution was announced, giving the new president—Gamal Abdel Nasser—vast powers, including the right to appoint ministers. On the economic front, industrialization and nationalization became top priorities. The coup transformed Egypt into a country in which the military-dominated state controlled the goals and orientation of the economy. Coinciding with these developments was a shift within the ruling class such that the influence of land-owning bourgeoisie declined to the benefit of a new class of industrialists.[i] Nasser’s rule institutionalized a prominent political role for the military within the ruling class, and paved the way for its control over the means of production.

The Egyptian military continues to draw upon a history of revolutionary legitimacy, and many view it as a patriotic institution. The 1881 ‘Urabi revolution against the British, the Free Officer’s movement, and Egypt’s wars with Israel reinforce the military’s important historical role within the popular imagination. Moreover, after 1952, the military portrayed itself as an anticolonial force, and military leaders such as Nasser explained that the 1952 coup had been motivated primarily by the British presence in Egypt as well as the perceived corruption of the monarchy. These anticolonial credentials, and the accompanying nationalist rhetoric focused on industrial development, afforded the military an enormous amount of legitimacy among the population.[ii] The nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 served as a clear representation of the anticolonial position of the new regime and was a widely popular development among Egyptians. For the military, this popular legacy endures until today. Finally, not only did Nasser’s two successors also emerge from the military, mandatory conscription ensures that there are ties between the institution and the broader population.

The military’s international alliances aimed to fortify its powerful position further. Following the 1952 coup that brought Nasser and the military into power, Egypt adopted a policy of non-alignment. Nevertheless, there was often a critical amount of tension, if not outright conflict, between the Western powers and Egypt over key issues such as the Suez Canal and Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine. Sadat’s presidency signaled a change in Egyptian foreign policy, both at the economic and political levels. Economically, Sadat’s policy of infitah opened up Egyptian markets, leading to an influx of foreign direct investment. Politically, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which led to tension not only between Egypt and other Arab countries, but also between Sadat and key military and political figures who were against the peace treaty. After the signing of the peace treaty, Foreign Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel was quoted saying: “I almost died of disgrace, disgust, and grief as I witnessed this tragedy unfold.” Since the peace treaty with Israel was signed in 1979 the Egyptian military has been the recipient of the second largest amount of American military aid, totaling over two billion dollars per year.

The Depoliticization of the Military?

The role of the military in Egyptian politics after the Nasser era has been the subject of extensive debate in the literature. Hazem Kandil argues that although the military was behind the 1952 coup that launched the post-independence Egyptian state, the process of marginalizing the institution began soon after. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all favored the state security apparatus over the military as a tool of repression, and under Mubarak a new group of elites emerged that represented a challenge to the military. This new economic elite became the core of the ruling class, thus marginalizing the position of the military. Others, however, such as Yezid Sayigh, argue that Egypt continued to be a military state until 2011 (and afterwards), and that what changed was the visibility of the military within the Egyptian political and economic spheres. This assertion is highly pertinent in light of claims after 30 June 2013 that the Egyptian military has “returned to power,” which assume that the military was not part of the ruling class before then.

On the one hand, it is difficult to argue that the military was completely depoliticized. The military continued to have widespread popular support in the public imagination, and continued its influence in the economic sphere. Importantly, top military figures were part of the corrupt system that existed under Mubarak, although it can be argued that they were drawn in as part of a broader attempt to co-opt them. Moreover, the military has been part of the ruling class since the inception of the Egyptian state. While their position within the ruling class has changed vis-à-vis other elites, their presence within the class is difficult to dispute.

On the other hand, successive governments did attempt to curb the power of military figures they saw as threatening. By Mubarak’s presidency, attempts to draw the military into the system through patronage and economic incentives were frequent, and popular military figures such as former Defense Minister Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala were prevented from accessing powerful positions.[iii] Moreover, a notable shift under Nasser (which continued with Sadat and Mubarak) was a focus on expanding the domestic security establishment. This meant that the Ministry of Interior began to accumulate unparalleled powers. Following the 1977 “bread riots” in which Sadat called upon the military to restore calm, he deepened the power of the police in anticipation of further unrest. Under Mubarak, the Ministry of Interior reigned supreme, and police brutality gradually became one of Egypt’s biggest problems. This can be understood in light of the economic policies, the effects of which could only be suppressed coercively. These changes set the scene for the emergence of new elite figures that would marginalize the military’s position even further. 

Ruling Class Realignments

Shifts in power within the elite, particularly with respect to control over the Egyptian economy, served to weaken the position of the military vis-à-vis other actors within the ruling class. Under Nasser, nationalization and industrialization programs ensured that the military controlled vast sectors of the economy. This shifted slightly under Sadat following notable privatization of the state sector. By the 1980s, however, the military began to again expand its economic reach into areas that had traditionally been civilian-controlled. Throughout Sadat’s presidency, the military expanded its powers in the economic sphere, investing and running major projects in tourism, industry and real estate, all of which were exempt from oversight. This expansion was especially notable in three areas: agriculture and land reclamation, arms manufacturing, and construction and services.

The economic empire for which the military is famous today (despite the lack of reliable data estimating its size) can be dated back to this period. Profits from some of this economic activity—most notably weapons production and export—are not only kept secret but are also produced at a subsidized rate, as the army enjoys subsidized prices for electricity and other manufacturing inputs. Agriculture and food production is another economic sector in which the military began to invest in. Land reclamation—turning desert land into land for urban development—which had been privatized under Sadat until the 1980s, saw a resurgence in army activity. The military also took on massive developmental projects under Mubarak. The 1980s thus saw the military begin to branch out into numerous industries at the expense of both state and civilian control over these industries. This created a new alliance between the military and the bourgeoisie who controlled these industries. By the late 1990s, however, Gamal Mubarak’s circle of businessmen, their excessive privatization, and monopolization began to threaten the military’s stake in the economy once again.

Under Mubarak, a new economic elite had emerged, of which his son Gamal was a key figure. This group constituted a powerful challenge to others within the ruling class, and can be characterized by their adherence to neoliberalism as a method of capitalist accumulation. The presence of this neoliberal group signaled a shift within the ruling class, as they soon began to vie for increasing control, particularly within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).[iv] Their brand of monopoly capitalism challenged the military’s monopolies in certain sectors, in particular their focus on privatizing segments of the economy that were previously controlled by the state and the military, including national banks and land reclamation projects.[v] These changes were largely the result of policies propagated by Gamal Mubarak and the new neoliberal elite within the NDP. The increasing influence of Gamal and other businessmen was especially visible within the party’s Policies Committee, one of the most powerful committees within the ruling party.

Mubarak’s Egypt became one of the leading neoliberal states in the Middle East. As Timothy Mitchell noted, both the ability of markets to work freely as well as the rampant privatization were applied unevenly and thus benefited a small elite, while the majority of Egyptians experienced a decline in quality of life.[vi] This is not to say that other members of the ruling class did not partake in the neoliberal project that created the vast gulfs between Egypt’s social classes, but rather to argue that this new group of elites was challenging other members of the ruling class—including the military—through their monopoly capitalism.

By the third decade of Mubarak’s presidency, the economic elites that now monopolized much of the Egyptian economy relied extensively on the police and security forces.[vii] This was especially clear in the way security forces dealt with the increasing number of labor strikes. Class tensions were growing and threatening to explode, rendering state coercion even more necessary. In order to maintain the stability necessary for economic exploitation, it was essential that social unrest over rising prices and inequality was kept to a minimum, and this was done through an increase in policing and police brutality. These tensions resulted primarily from the increased embeddedness of neoliberalism, visible in the widening gaps between social classes, the effects of structural adjustment programs at the micro level, and the influx of foreign capital and spread of privatization (which also threatened the military’s economic interests). [viii]

Moreover at the political level the systematic rigging of elections and increased brutality of the security forces added to the unrest in Egyptian society. The transformation that had begun in the 1970s was now complete: the ruling party, comprised largely of neoliberal elites, and supported by the Ministry of the Interior and security forces, exerted significant control over Egypt. The class tension from rising inequality, growing prices of basic goods, and increasing numbers of labor strikes suggest that important segments of the Egyptian public were finding it increasingly difficult to survive.[ix] This combination of the challenge from a new neoliberal elite as well as the sharp rise in social inequality resulting from the policies of this new elite sheds light on the military’s intervention in 2011.[x]

2011 and 2013: Attempts to Recenter the Military within the Ruling Class

Several factors shaped the choices facing the military during the 2011 uprising. There is little doubt that the grassroots pressure from protesters, as well as the threats by various segments of the public and private sector to go on strike, played a major role in compelling the authorities to address their demands. These demands centered around social justice and freedom, with police brutality and reform of the Ministry of Interior also playing a central role. The impossibility of salvaging the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime soon became clear, and undoubtedly affected the military’s decision to intervene. Additionally, the military’s concern about its declining position in the Egyptian ruling class was critical, as was the need to protect corrupt figures within the military ranks from the trials that were bound to take place. Following the forced resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt duly entered a military-led transitional period under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The military was once again at the forefront of Egyptian politics.

It appears that the revolutionary protests succeeded in toppling Mubarak because the military decided to “side with the revolution.” This was not necessarily out of sympathy for the demands of the protesters, however, but because the military made a strategic calculation. With apparent plans to groom Gamal for the presidency underway, the military was now facing the prospect of a civilian president for Egypt for the first time in over half a century. Moreover, the new group of elites headed by Gamal Mubarak had played an important role in exacerbating the societal tensions behind the revolution that was now threatening to topple the entire ruling class, which would inevitably affect the military’s privileged position. Finally, the economic policies that resulted from the shift in the ruling class, primarily the extensive privatization of key industries, changed the balance that had existed since Nasser. This opportunity to re-center themselves within the ruling class acted as an incentive for the military to intervene in 2011. This intervention led to a military-led transitional period, followed by presidential elections in 2012, which senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi won. Notably, the constitution that was written under Morsi protected the military’s privileges, further shedding doubt on the narrative that Morsi sent the military back to the barracks.

Following the widespread protests on 30 June 2013 against Morsi, the military has once again entered center stage, this time with much public support. On 3 July General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi announced that Morsi was no longer president of Egypt and that the constitution was suspended. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, took over as interim president. The 30 June protests signaled a continuation of many of the demands of 2011, as well as deep discontent with Morsi’s first year in power. The constitutional process was perceived as exclusionary to non-Islamist forces, and the violent clashes at the presidential palace in December (in response to the constitutional crisis) raised questions about the role of police violence in Morsi’s Egypt. This, together with the possibility of a new loan from the International Monetary Fund, further cementing neoliberalism in Egypt, had all managed to raise concern among different segments of Egyptian society.

While the debate about whether this intervention constitutes a military coup or not has been extensive, a more important question is whether this intervention can shed light on the position of the military within the ruling class pre-2011 as well as after the 2012 presidential elections. It is clear that events in Egypt after 30 June cannot be explained primarily by asking whether what occurred was a coup or a popular revolution—it was a combination. It is more useful to focus on the different actors involved: an important aspect of the events since 30 June is the military elite’s effort to prevent the protests from reaching a point where the army itself and its privileged position become targets. This is the second time the military has stepped in since 2011, and both times it has done so in an effort to determine the course of events following massive mobilization at the grassroots level, and an immense revolutionary energy that seemed capable of demanding—and achieving—critical socio-economic and political demands.

It is crucial to highlight the role that both the military and Morsi’s government have played in continuing and consolidating neoliberal governance in Egypt, a project that continues to undermine widespread demands for redistribution. It is this project that continues to obstruct key revolutionary demands, and it is thus in the interest of the entire ruling class to prevent continued mass mobilizations that threaten the project. This, alongside the challenge posed to their economic interests prior to 2011, can help explain why the military intervened in 2011. As has been pointed out, the military has worked to control and contain the energy on the street. The military’s interest is primarily to maintain the status quo that allows the ruling class to stay in power and pursue its economic and political project, which is precisely what many protesters have been trying dismantle since 2011. The demands that were central to 25 January 2011, in particular the demand for social justice, require an overthrow of the ruling class and their policies. In other words, while the fulfillment of key revolutionary demands would entail the overthrow of the ruling class, the military is simply trying to re-shape the ruling class in order to protect its interests.

Theorizing the military interventions of 2011 and 2013 demands a close examination of the shifts within the ruling class and how these manifest in society. These diverse elites share a collective interest in maintaining a hegemonic system, and when one group within the ruling class threatens to disrupt this project conflict and defections are likely to arise, as was the case in both 2011 and 2013. The army’s interventions in 2011 and 2013 can be viewed as an attempt to restore its centrality within the ruling class (especially after 2011), and to protect its privileges from the protests themselves.

[1] Some recent exceptions include Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt. (Verso Books, 2012). Steven A. Cook, Ruling but not governing: The military and political development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Imad Harb, "The Egyptian military in politics: Disengagement or accommodation?." The Middle East Journal (2003): 269-290.

[i] Anouar Abdel-Malek,, Egypt: Military Society: The Army Regime, the Left, and Social Change under Nasser (New York: Random House, 1968), 87.

[ii] Much of this nationalist rhetoric focused on industrialization and, later, socialism. Early redistribution policies served to classify Egypt’s new regime as socialist, though arguably Egypt during the Nasser period can be better classified as capitalist, whereby the ruling class combined the public and private sectors.

[iii] In 1989 Mubarak replaced Abu Ghazala following allegations that he was part of a scheme to import banned missile technology into Egypt. Abu Ghazala was widely popular, both in the army and in the country, and was rumoured to have been a possible rival to Mubarak.

[iv] One example was their attempts to extend their power through the ruling party. They took control of the cabinet, followed by control of the NDP and parliament. Key businessmen were appointed to important positions within the NDP. Ahmed Ezz, a steel tycoon, became the majority leader in parliament and Gamal Mubarak became the Assistant Secretary-General of the NDP.

[v] McMahon in Dan Tschirgi,, Walid Kazziha, and Sean F. McMahon, eds., Egypt's Tahrir Revolution (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013), 166.

[vi] Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (University of California Press, 2002), 228.

[vii] McMahon, 2013.

[viii] Selim H Shahine, “Youth and the Revolution in Egypt,” Anthropology Today 27, no. 2 (2011), 1-3.

[ix] See: Galal A. Amin, Egypt in the Era of Hosni Mubarak 1981-2011 (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 100; Saad Z. Nagi and Omar Nagi, “Stratification and Mobility in Contemporary Egypt,” Population Review 50, no. 1 (2011), 6.

[x] See: Shahine, 3-4; Amin, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?: Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000), 4-5.

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