Zeinab Abul-Magd, Militarizing the Nation: The Army, Business, and Revolution in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Zeinab Abul-Magd (ZAM): I was in Egypt when the 2011 uprisings were taking place and participated in many of the major events. It was my sabbatical year from Oberlin, and I had just finished my first history book. The Egyptian military institution, then ruling the country after Mubarak was overthrown, was heavily criticized for its political oppression of protesters, but little was mentioned or published about their economic domination over the country through a vast business empire. When I started to investigate the subject at that time, I discovered that the last book ever to mention the Egyptian army’s business was published in 1989 by prominent political scientist Robert Spring, who had resided in Egypt for years. It had been a political taboo in the three decades prior to the uprisings for Egyptian media or researchers to talk about military business or the military’s unaccountable budget. A few New York Times and Washington Post reporters published some interesting stories on the issue, but none was published in Arabic by the Egyptian press. The army’s business was a big secret that the military entrepreneurs kept. While in Egypt in 2011-12, I became extremely interested in unearthing their clandestine business conglomerates and investigating their roots in recent history.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ZAM: From a political economy approach, I try in this book to trace the genealogies of the Egyptian military institution’s rise to full economic and political supremacy. In Egypt’s post-colonial history, the army saved the “nation” and posed as its faithful guardian several times, but saving the nation was inseparable from militarizing it. I try to follow how Egypt’s semi-autonomous military institution has been visibly, or often invisibly, hegemonizing the country’s economy and society as a whole throughout the past six decades. Uniquely in its regional context, the Egyptian army has adapted and benefited from crucial moments of change and has survived old and new waves of revolutionary shifts in the country. It weathered fundamental moments of transition to socialism in the 1960s, market consumerism in the 1980s, and neoliberalism from the 1990s onward, all while successfully expanding a mammoth business empire and enhancing its political supremacy. Recently, it has survived hard times during two popular uprisings, retained full power, and subsequently increased its wealth.
From a Foucauldian vantage point, I also try to look at how while adjusting to these difficult shifts, the military officers have successfully turned the urban milieus of the population into an ever-expanded military camp—into sites of their permanent armed presence, continuous surveillance, and control of everyday life. The military institution’s business enterprises tapped into consumerist realms of the rich and poor citizens alike, for both unaccountable profit and optimized social command. In the meantime, military bureaucrats securitized local urbanities to watch over docile or discontented masses during times of both peace and rebellious turmoil.
Generally, this book was very hard to write, as I suffered from an essential problem with the availability and accessibility of sources throughout the process of collecting material, both primary and secondary. The army’s business records and locations are considered “military secrets,” and civilians are allowed no access to them for, allegedly, “national security” reasons. There is an absolute lack of transparency in (or public accountability over) the military’s civilian enterprises—they are not even listed on the Egyptian stock market. As I have just mentioned, published literature on the Egyptian military institution has been scarce over the past few decades. For instance, Robert Springborg published the last English monograph covering the Egyptian army and its economic interests in 1989, and Ahmad Abdallah edited the last Arabic volume on relevant topics in 1990. Two decades would pass before Hazem Kandil published a new book on the ruling officers, with a chief focus on Nasser’s period, in 2011.
A considerable breakthrough took place in the availability of sources after January 2011. The few months that immediately followed the uprisings witnessed a rare and very short-lived moment of great openness in media and social networks, with an unprecedented degree of the journalists and the masses alike seizing their freedom of expression in a fluid and hardly controlled political milieu. Printed newspapers during this period took great advantage of the revolutionary influx and published endless stories undermining existing journalistic taboos on the military’s budget and business profit. Discontented youth, workers, government employees, and local communities all created Facebook pages or YouTube channels to voice their grievances against military business managers. The outcome was a wealth of previously hidden and highly critical information necessary to decipher the clandestine realities of the Egyptian military. Being in Egypt and observing such a unique moment taking place at the time, I tried to collect this fortune of information to unearth evidence on long secreted matters. Without the 2011 uprisings, this book would have never been written.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ZAM: As a result of growing up under the authoritarian regime of Mubarak in Egypt, I have always been preoccupied with the question of revolution. Resistance against economic and political oppression is the theme that runs through all of my publications, even if they tremendously differ in terms of the time periods and the topics they cover. I have also always been keen on understanding the political economy of oppression and rebellion in the past and the present, and thus, a political economy approach is another thread running across my research.
I worked on my first book when Mubarak was still in power, when his police state repressed the south of the country, Upper Egypt, much more than other regions and kept it economically undeveloped way below the poverty line. So, my first book, titled, Imagined Empires: A History of Revolt in Egypt, went to the Egyptian national archives to investigate the roots of political and economic marginalization of south Egypt by various early modern and modern empires and domestics centralized governments in the course of five centuries—from 1500s until the present day. More importantly, it attempted to recollect untold histories of subaltern revolts in Upper Egypt, against both imperial hegemony and an evolving nation-state. The book was a microhistory of the Qina province in the deep south, investigating how early modern and modern empires altered socio-economic structures, generated environmental crises, and eventually failed and marginalized the south within an evolving centralized state. Their failure was faced by low-class small riots or massive revolts, whose leaders were often times male and female bandits.
Although Militarizing the Nation seems to be very far away in its period and topic from Imagined Empires, they are similar in that both scrutinize the history of repression and revolt through a political economy approach to the old or recent past.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ZAM: First, of course, I hope that Middle Eastern studies researchers and students will be able to read it and draw comparisons with other old and new military regimes in the region. The Middle East has witnessed the rise and fall or survival of so many other military regimes in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Turkey, Sudan, etc., and there are harsh lessons to learn from their experiences. The Egyptian officers’ experience remains unique, and it is worth understanding their astounding adaptability and durability. In addition to that, I hope that Egyptian and Arab grassroots activists on the ground will read the book because I wish for it to be the historical register of the economic and social brutalities of the Egyptian ruling generals before and after the 2011 uprisings, and I wish for it to be deployed as a tool for continuous resistance.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ZAM: I am working on a popular history book about the Middle East in World War One. It will be a big shift from Militarizing the Nation, but I will continue writing on the military and the economy because it is my duty as a political activist—besides being an academic!
J: Will you be able to travel or return to Egypt after writing this book?
The question I always get is whether I am able to go back to Egypt after publishing the book. I can assure you that the big brother is keeping a close eye on me both in the U.S. and Egypt. Fortunately, I am able to go back and forth to Egypt to spend time with my family and observe how the current military regime is unfolding and progressing, either for its ever-lasting survival or final demise. One thing remains clear though: you can never predict things in Egyptian politics!
Excerpt from the Introduction:
After the sweeping wave of the “Arab Spring” uprisings that erupted in 2011, the Egyptian Army stood among a few Arab militaries that not only remained intact but also succeeded in restoring command over its crumbling state. Military regimes and military-backed autocrats were born across the Middle East ever since its states gained independence from European colonialism in the mid-twentieth century. Tens of military coup d’états took place in the region and gave birth to officer-dominated regimes in postcolonial Arab states such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. These authoritarian regimes lasted for decades, until many of them finally collapsed under mass unrest in 2011. This wave led not only to overthrowing old military dictators such as Muammar al-Qadhafi of Libya or Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen but also to dismantling many of their military institutions. Next door to Egypt in Syria, the son of a military dictator who inherited his father’s security state, Bashar al-Assad, has not yet been deposed, but his army has been similarly severely fractured. In Egypt, however, the aging military autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown, but his army was kept fully intact and managed to shortly reinstate the military regime anew amid cheering masses. This book follows the historical roots of the Egyptian Army’s political and economic might and how it survived the Arab Spring to restore absolute dominance.
When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi swept elections in the summer of 2014, he was the fourth officer to take off his uniform and rule Egypt since its independence…During these long decades, the army has militarized everyday life of its subjugated and manipulated citizens across social classes. It has baked them subsidized bread, built affordable apartments, opened wedding halls, constructed football stadiums, and sold all sorts of consumer goods. The banners of military-owned expansive farms, manufacturing conglomerates, or contraction companies are visibly installed atop their supermarkets, large shopping malls, toll highways, bridges, luxury hotels, summer resorts, and even parking lots. Moreover, retired generals have taken charge of state authorities and public-sector companies that provide citizens with basic services from water and sewerage, transportation, and road maintenance to telephone lines and the Internet. Above all this, the military has penetrated into the daily life of every family through compulsory conscription of male youths for a period between one and three years. A young man cannot travel, get a job, or even get married without finishing his military service first. In the meantime, the army produces popular songs about heroic officers, makes documentaries about brave soldiers, opens museums displaying great battles from pharaonic to modern times, and distributes charitable items to the poor in big festivities celebrating its sacrifices for the nation.
While adapting to change and adjusting to transformations, the Egyptian military switched ideologies and socioeconomic alliances and altered external allies. The first military president, Nasser, opted for socialism, favored the middle and lower classes, made friends with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and made enemies of conservative Arabian Gulf regimes. On the contrary, his successor Sadat decided to embrace an open-market economy, partner with a class of local business tycoons, switch Cold War camps to the United States, and revive relations with the oil-producing Gulf states. Mubarak followed Sadat’s footsteps to encourage big consumerism in the 1980s, until he fully transformed the country into neoliberalism in the 1990s and the 2000s. Within these changing environments, the military as an institution positioned itself to maximize its power and profit at every moment of transformation. It was an army that fought for Arab liberation and socialism in the 1960s, fully embraced market consumerism through venturing into civilian production in the 1980s, and finally adopted neoliberalism to expand a business empire in collaboration with local and foreign capital throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Moreover, during the last ten years of Mubarak’s reign, retired generals occupied numerous key bureaucratic positions managing his neoliberal state, which was infamous for clientelism, corruption, and inefficiency. When the wealthy Muslim Brothers rose to power in 2011, the military quickly allied itself with the new elite and expanded its business enterprises under their regime. But the officers soon switched domestic alliances again to other discontented political stances and social groups to take down the Islamist regime. Toward this end, they relied on the indispensable help of oil-producing Arab Gulf states, displeased the United States., and revived old ties with Russia.
Militarizing the nation was justified when the army was fighting big wars. But the Egyptian military fought its last war and signed a peace treaty with its main enemy, Israel, four decades ago. Thus, as it almost lost importance and relevance in society, the military had to reinvent its image and forge new nationalistic myths in order to maintain its omnipotent presence in the nation... After signing the peace accord with Israel in 1978, the Egyptian military was required to reduce its size and budget and keep to its barracks. Nonetheless, it continued to impose compulsory conscription, enjoy a considerable budget, and intensively occupy the socioeconomic realms of the masses.
In the time of peace, the Egyptian military reinvented its role in society. It claimed that its new duties now were to contribute to the country’s economic development. In reality, it turned the whole society into a big military camp under its constant surveillance. Through business ventures and civilian positions, the military sustained its uninterrupted gaze over the urban milieu and securitized the everyday life of subjected citizens. The guardians of the nation had already been living outside of their barracks for a long time when they offered their help to save the country in the past few years.
Through tracing the history of the Egyptian military institution from the 1950s until the present day, this book applies political economy and Foucauldian approaches to deconstruct how the officers have repeatedly saved and long militarized the nation. It attempts to decipher the mysteries of the institution’s ability to constantly adapt to change by reinventing its image, altering its doctrine, redeploying its patriotic rhetoric, and reforging its socioeconomic alliances in order to maintain power and hegemonize the citizens as their only trusted guardian. While contextualizing it within its domestic, regional, and global environments, the book investigates transformations in the Egyptian military institution and the distant and near roots of its rise to full supremacy today.
The book poses four main arguments in this regard. First, it argues that the military institution that exists in Egypt today is not the same as the one that created the country’s first military regime sixty years ago. A fundamental rupture took place in this institution in 1980s, which gave birth to the new army that rules the country today. Old and new armies differ in their socioeconomic composition, their doctrine, and the way they militarized society. Whereas the old army was led by lower- to middle-class soldiers who rose into an affluent ruling elite and militarized society through war and socialism, the new army is controlled by a class of managers of military business enterprises, or “neoliberal officers,” and militarizes society through market hegemony. Whereas the old army’s ambitious doctrine adopted an Arab nationalist identity, a socialist ideology, and was externally oriented to regional affairs, the new army’s less ambitious doctrine focuses on narrow Egyptian patriotism and is internally oriented to domestic matters…
Second, the book argues that before the uprisings of 2011, the officers were an integral part, or rather makers, of Mubarak’s neoliberal regime. This regime was deposed owing to its failure to deliver social justice and was plagued by patron-client relations, conspicuous corruption, overall decadence of public services, and acute social disparities. Throughout the 2000s, as he accelerated the pace of transforming to neoliberalism, Mubarak hired an ever increasing number of retired officers in civilian positions in order to “coup-proof” his regime. While he maintained a civilian face for the state in Cairo by appointing cabinets of civilian technocrats, retired generals were the de facto rulers of most of provincial Egypt through occupying the seats of local governors. More important, retired officers were major participants in running a dysfunctional market economy, as they were hired heads of numerous government authorities responsible for the key economic activities of the liberalized state…
Third, the book argues that the Egyptian military is a product of its regional and global contexts and has changed with major transformations in these wider surroundings…
Finally, this book argues that the Egyptian military’s engagement in business and the bureaucracy was not simply to generate profit and amass resources. There is a Foucauldian twist to the story. By tapping into the consumerist markets of all social classes and governing their urban milieu, the officers managed to establish their constant surveillance over the population toward full control. The Egyptian military is a modern institution in a modern state. According to Michel Foucault’s deconstruction of the modern state’s mechanisms of power, this state developed the practice of closely observing the society in order to make it a disciplined and docile population. Foucault illustrates how the state adopted the model of a military camp, that is, of keeping a permanent gaze over the hierarchized dwellers of the camp, as a perfect structure in urban development, toward disciplinary control over every individual body. In Security, Territory, and Population, Foucault indicates that the modern state aimed at structuring its urban institutions in the military camp’s “panoptic” shape, which “basically involves putting someone in the center—an eye, a gaze, a principle of surveillance—who will be able to make its sovereignty function over all the individuals [placed] within this machine of power. To that extent we can say that the panopticon is the oldest dream of the oldest sovereign: None of my subjects can escape and none of their actions is unknown to me.” In the Egyptian case, the military institution that exercises state power by itself has turned the whole society into an infinite, long-lasting camp where everyday life is subjected to the officer’s visible or invisible watch, yet with allegations of achieving security or guarding the nation.