Deeper Militarism in Egypt

By Joshua Stacher - Guest contributor | Sep 16, 2013
Deeper Militarism in Egypt

There can be no doubt that revolutionary activities gripped Egypt after the January 2011 uprising began. Yet, just as revolutionary waves pushed for greater freedoms and social justice, counterrevolutionary forces responded to maintain some semblance of a Mubarakist-regime without Mubarak. The prospects for increased political freedom look dim at the moment. The events since the July 3 popularly-supported coup indicate strongly that Mubarak’s state, unreformed police, and the army will be the central players in determining Egypt’s near-term political trajectory.[1] Other pro-regime figures will reemerge as servants and implementers of the security establishment’s agenda. The core revolutionaries now find their numbers eclipsed by a pro-army, pro-regime majority. The revolutionaries will be sidelined if they fail to change the ways that they resist Egypt’s re-empowered but unchanged autocratic regime. Yet, despite the Mubarak holdovers, the current state differs greatly from Mubarak’s iteration. The central actors in the ruling coalition and the power relationships between them, when compared to those of Mubarak’s regime, have permanently changed.  

In the decade leading up to the uprising, the military played a role of one of the equals on the ruling coalition. It was not first among them. While members of the military undoubtedly contributed to behind-the-scenes policy decisions as well as served as governors of the numerous provinces, some analysts correctly argue that during this period Egypt was an archetypal “state-security” state rather than a military state, as it would have been labeled in the 1950s and 1960s.

After al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya’s insurrection in the 1990s and the onslaught of protest activity from labor and groups such as Kifaya in the 2000s, the military came to compete for state resources with the Interior Ministry’s web of spies, police, and informants. It was the latter group that was responsible for local order on the various street corners and neighborhoods around the country.

Post February 2011, gone is Mubarak’s central platform for distributing patronage, the National Democratic Party (NDP). While new parties will form in the wake of General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s coup, and many will have former NDP members, any large single ruling party will need to be reconstructed from scratch rather than simply reconstituted. This potential party will be utterly subservient to its military overlords and their wishes. People that participated in the governing of Egypt under Mubarak’s long tenure may return to official positions, but those personalities and offices will not have the authority they had under Mubarak’s dictatorship. For instance, crony capitalists that profit from and support the military’s substantial business ventures,[2] some of which are buttressed by wealthy multinational corporations, will form the regime’s civilian business face.

What has fundamentally shifted in Egypt since the July 3 coup is the stark and profound power of the military, manifested in the figure of el-Sisi. However, whether el-Sisi runs for president or not is immaterial. It is he who holds the state’s exercisable authority contrary to the interim president, who is a judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court. In fact, given the new power relationships that are emerging, it is entirely plausible that el-Sisi, the former head of military intelligence, may indeed hold elections in which one of his own runs and wins in a procedurally fair election. If this occurs, the system will have morphed into one in which executive power flows exclusively into and out of the offices of military intelligence while el-Sisi and other officers influence politics in ways that lack the slightest modicum of transparency. In this way the new regime will be entirely different than the one Mubarak oversaw because it will be solely centered around the army’s generals.[3]

The popular mobilization that shocked and muted the old Mubarak elites allowed for these alterations in Egypt’s ruling coalition. The military under Hussein Tantawi, who governed SCAF and the country for the first 17 months after Mubarak’s ouster, used the uprising to secure the generals’ place at the top as they tried to salvage what remained. Yet, SCAF was weak when it took over in February 2011 and incapable of politically engineering such an outcome alone. The generals needed help from beyond the old establishment, and they found such support in the seemingly politically patient wings of the country’s oldest civilian organization, the Society of Muslim Brothers.

When SCAF directly ruled, the Brothers served as willing agents to bring about the change that delivered the generals to the apex of state authority.[4] The Brotherhood dismissed criticisms of SCAF when it employed violence against protesters and used military trials against civilians, and it obliged SCAF’s wishes not to reform the state apparatus. The Brotherhood gave the institutions that had exerted repression against them for decades a pass as time elapsed and weakened the projective capacity of the protesters’ mobilization. When given a chance to run for parliament or the presidency, the Brothers jumped at the chance to show off their national organizational capabilities while they and SCAF electionized Egypt’s population.

In his year-long presidency, even when he overreached with maneuvers such as last November’s constitutional declaration that granted him sweeping powers, Morsi sought to insulate and protect the security services while increasing the army’s reach into political life. This was best seen in articles 197 and 198 of Morsi’s constitution. The document prohibited parliamentary discussion or oversight of the military’s budget, established the 15-person National Defense Council, and made military trials against civilians legal (a measure only legal previously under the less formal Code of Military Justice instituted in 1966).

Morsi’s presidency and the Brotherhood could never overcome the suspicions of society or the generals. Outside of the Brotherhood’s closed networks, the other Islamist groups felt that Morsi and his group only sought power, not a march toward “true” religious rule. The non-Islamist constituencies worried about Morsi’s seeming disregard for their concerns, token appointments, or lack of serious outreach to include their voices. In many respects the Brotherhood walked right into the trap of 30 years of Egyptian and international discourse about their ruling intentions. Lastly, but most decisively, the generals that commanded SCAF and the armed forces never really accepted that Morsi and the Brothers’ actions equaled long-term subservience. The group and its spokesmen publicly acknowledged that they had designs on establishing civilian control over the military in the future. This was the ultimate deal breaker in what turned out to be a tenuous political pact between the generals and the Brothers.[5]

Since the July 3 coup, the military nakedly controls politics. Yet, signs that Egypt’s uprising militarized emerged long before. Whether one looks at the body count that resulted from the patterned and deliberate military and police violence against different segments of Egyptian society or the expanded reliance on military justice, both reveal worrying developments for those belonging to unprotected networks outside of the military or the Interior Ministry.

Take the example of military courts. It is unknown how many military trials Mubarak used against civilians during his 30-year presidency, but according to the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the number reached nearly 10,000. Other accounts place this figure between 2,000 and 2,500.[6] No group suffered at the hands of unappealable military courts as frequently as the Muslim Brothers. Between 1995 and 2008, military courts sentenced 108 Brothers to prison.

During SCAF’s first seven months leading post-Mubarak Egypt, the generals dramatically escalated the use of military courts by handling 11,879 civilians. Compared with the total number from the previous 30 years, this represents a nearly six-fold increase in a little over half a year. There was no clear pattern indicating who was liable to be charged or convicted in these courts. With the police force not fully operating, SCAF appeared to be improvising in an effort to maintain order. As one reporter noted, “The large number of defendants suggest that some have been arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”[7] While domestic advocacy campaigns and organizations drew attention to this crisis,[8] SCAF was reluctant to end its reliance on military trials, though it did eventually stop the practice as well as drop a large number of cases.

While there seems to have been a moratorium on military trials during Morsi’s presidency,[9] Morsi’s constitutive assembly enshrined them once again in the December 2012 constitution. This development expanded the military’s reach, as it constitutionally empowered military justice against non-military personnel. As article 198 claimed, “Civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the Armed Forces.” At the time, rights groups such as No Military Trials for Civilians criticized the vague wording, but failed to reverse it.

After Morsi was deposed in July 2013, the interim government suspended the controversial 2012 constitution, save for the articles that privilege the military’s expanded authority and judicial option. While a committee has convened and will rework Egypt’s constitution once again, it seems unlikely that it will repeal the section on military courts against civilians. This option may not have been used while Morsi was president, but it has been used since his removal.

After a military-style police assault that left over 800 people dead—mainly pro-Morsi supporters—on August 14, an uptick of military trials against civilians has occurred. On September 1, a military court in Suez sentenced a Brotherhood supporter to life in prison for using violence against the army. Another 48 defendants were given between five and 15 years in prison for the same charge. Twelve others were found not guilty. While these numbers are not as dramatic as when SCAF directly governed, the use of military trials against civilians is still occurring at a comparatively higher rate than the last 15 years under Mubarak. Given that the military is not as weak as it was when it took over in February 2011, this pattern of doling out military justice should be understood as more calculated and cynical. The generals are more secure and are operating from a position of strength as they consolidate their rule. If the military accomplishes these trials when it is strong, they must be understood as a sign of what is to come.

There is a tendency to think about Egypt’s uprising in terms of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Indeed, many of the repressive trappings that were hallmarks of Mubarak’s tenure are reemerging as Egypt’s new leaders dissemble and decapitate the Brothers. The goal seems to be to turn the Brotherhood into the Wafd.[10] Yet a great deal has changed, and the new regime is not the same as that of Mubarak. There may have been many supporting agents who helped to prop up and shill for the Mubarak regime, but the latest iteration of Egypt’s autocratic system is more violent, less inclusive, and more militaristic than at any time in Egypt’s contemporary history. Military trials will prove to be just one measure of this repressive turn.




[1] “Egypt: Return to a Generals’ Republic?” BBC, 21 August 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23780839.

[2] Shana Marshall and Joshua Stacher, “Egypt’s Generals and Transnational Capital,” MERIP 262 (Summer 2013).

[3] Hugh Roberts, “The Revolution that Wasn’t,” London Review of Books 35, 17 (September 2013), http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n17/hugh-roberts/the-revolution-that-wasnt.

[4] Joshua Stacher, “Egypt without Mubarak,” MERIP, 7 April 2011, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero040711.

[5] Joshua Stacher, “SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood,” The Middle East Institute, 14 April 2013, http://www.mei.edu/content/scaf%C2%A0and%C2%A0the%C2%A0muslim-brotherhood.

[6] Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, “In a Press Conference at CIHRS, 30 NGOS Condemn the Campaign Waged by Egyptian Authorities against Civil Society Organizations,” 24 August 2011.

[7] Ahmed Mahmoud, “Egypt’s Long History of Military Trials,” Ahram Online, 25 September 2011, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/0/22440/Egypt/0/Egypts-long-history-of-military-trials.aspx.

[9] With the exception of the Qursaya incident, in which the military forcibly evicted residents from their homes, which led to civilian-military clashes that resulted in 25 people being referred to military courts, Morsi did not use, or was incapable of using, military courts against civilians. In fact, in his last defiant speech in June 2013 he threatened to start using military courts. While the No Military Trials for Civilians group claims that military trials continued in the canal cities during Morsi’s presidency, there are no press reports that link the use of military trials to Morsi when he was president. This may be the only real bright spot in an otherwise troubled presidency.

[10] The Wafd is one of the most historic political parties in Egypt. It was founded in the late 1910s and was the country’s most prominent political party before it was banned in 1952 after the Free Officer’s revolution. The party was reconstituted in 1978, and while it enjoyed advantages due to its name recognition, was a shell of its former self. The Wafd was one of the weak legal opposition parties that were never truly capable or willing to contest the Mubarak regime.