Egypt's Military-Industrial Complex

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Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian guards keep watch as Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, in auto, visits Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 6, 2011

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Samer Shehata, an Egyptian academic at Georgetown University, notes that the military had started putting the brakes on Gamal's reforms in 2008. The generals pointed to the hundreds of labor strikes the economic changes had unleashed. "They said this was becoming an issue of national security," says Shehata. In fact, a key protest group organizing on Facebook took its name — the April 6 Movement — from an April 6, 2008, strike by textile workers in a key industrial city in the delta that was brutally suppressed by the regime.

Now, the bureaucratic upheaval that has come with the uprising appears to benefit further the old-guard military figures who opposed Gamal and his business associates. Many of the allies of the President's son had risen to high ranks in the ruling National Democratic Party, including Ezz, who was a member of parliament. Now, Ezz and several of the high-ranking party officials — alleged cronies of Gamal — are under investigation and barred from traveling overseas, their bank accounts frozen. Many are believed to be supporters — and major beneficiaries — of the privatizations that were part of Gamal's aggressive economic liberalization policies.

As a result, says Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, "I don't think we are going to have neoliberal, Western-style economic reform in Egypt. I think there is going to be a return to some aspect of state-led development so the part of the economy that is controlled by the military may well be reinforced for some time."

Indeed, the military may evade any of the reforming that is being promised as part of the government's concession to the protesters. If a public-security institution is in for reform, it is most likely going to be the Interior Ministry, which has, according to Khalidi, a "mind-boggling" number of secret units that can turn out tens of thousands of men on the streets in any city overnight. The Interior Ministry is controlled by the General Intelligence Service, which is run by General Omar Suleiman, the military man recently appointed Vice President and entrusted with overseeing some sort of promised transition. "This way, the military has its cake and eats it too, basking in popularity and general support while other elements of the regime that are, in fact, subordinate to the military, absorb popular anger," says Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military now at the Naval Postgraduate School. Says Khalidi: "I would be very surprised if anyone — even the Muslim Brotherhood — is going to mess with the military for the foreseeable future even if there is really a democratic transition."

But the military does need reforming. In recent years there has been more and more grumbling from midlevel ranks that professionalization is taking a backseat to maintaining the military's hold on influence in the regime. That's what is behind the observation, cited in a U.S. embassy in Cairo cable revealed by WikiLeaks, that Field Marshal Tantawi is perceived to reward loyalty over competence. According to WikiLeaks, the Defense Minister is sometimes disdainfully referred to by midlevel officers as "Mubarak's poodle."

Apart from that, however, some experts say there has been a severe degradation of the Egyptian military's fighting capabilities. The country is the fourth largest operator of F-16s, and has some 4,000 main battle tanks. But Egypt lacks the state-of-the-art communications systems needed to coordinate these assets on a 21st century battleground. And that makes its armed forces much less interoperable with its allies.

This operational decay has been obscured by the myth of the closeness of the U.S. and Egyptian militaries. In fact, U.S. officers are not allowed to contact their Egyptian counterparts directly by phone or even e-mail; everything is routed through unit commanders via the Minister of Defense. And forget about fraternizing in those social clubs — as U.S. officers do with their counterparts in Jordan, which is regarded as having a first-class military. "There is a wall between the two and so the ability to translate the strategic embrace into an operational one is not there," says a source close to the U.S. military.

Nevertheless, it is all but certain that the military will remain at the core of whatever regime emerges from the current confused impasse. The protesters and reformists may notch a few wins. Says Springborg: "I think they'll get Mubarak's scalp, at least symbolically, and they'll get probably a little bit of a thicker veil of civilian governance — but I think that's as much as they're going to get." The military will still be at the helm.

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