Civilianizing the State: Reflections on the Egyptian Conundrum

By Philippe Droz-Vincent | Professor of Political Science and International Relations - Sciences-Po Grenoble (France) | May 14, 2014
Civilianizing the State: Reflections on the Egyptian Conundrum

This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More


The military, though it has been the most powerful and influential actor during Egypt’s transition since 2011, is not the great deus ex machina of the Egyptian system. Rather, it is an actor that, since the fall of Mubarak, has managed to maintain some organizational coherence and legitimacy and has served as the convener for various and changing forces that are the crux of a new ruling coalition. Consequently, as this essay will demonstrate, civilianizing the Egyptian state will require that security sector reforms be embedded in a broader set of political reforms.

Why is the Egyptian Military at Center Stage?

The military is said to be a longstanding pillar of the regime and the state in Egypt. Yet, beyond this vague assertion, this view is rarely explained. Although the Egyptian military was heavily invested in the Mubarak regime, the latter was not a military regime. The Mubarak regime controlled the state through a centralized executive (Mubarak and his close associates) combined with a security apparatus (the mukhabarat). The Ministry of Interior was the regime’s first line of defense and the military was its ultimate backbone if it needed strong cover, even though the military could opt out, as it did in February 2011.

Two characteristics are pivotal to understand the specific yet crucial role of the Egyptian military. Firstly, it is a huge corps creating a kind of equilibrium of power among key constituencies, and it has a strong corporate sense of its interests. The military is a unique form of public organization that can create a virtual enclave with its own rules and encroach on the civilian sphere. In fact, one of the most debated issues in Egypt is the so-called “military economy;” the military’s most conspicuous encroachments are its economic enterprises in the civilian market and its huge real estate ventures.

Secondly, the Egyptian military is endowed with a strong sense of the state. The military possesses substantial legitimizing resources: its role in nation-building and other tropes highlighting its role have been propagated for years in schools, among conscripts, in the media, and in numerous military-sponsored events. This sense of legitimacy among officers can veer toward a sense of superiority to civilians, as an anonymous military source related by stating that “we have to be sure that the country would be in relatively safe hands. It is our responsibility by virtue of the constitution.”[1]

What was essential in Egypt from 1967 until 2011 was not the military's interventionist potential per se, but its capacity to act as a “balance holder” in an authoritarian system. It tacitly supported a president who hailed from the military but who had “demilitarized” the political system; as such, the military operated with a kind of political quietism in tandem with enormous privileges. The military was a key component of the Egyptian state, and it was at the root of an authoritarian equilibrium by acquiescing to the leadership of the executive branch. All polities consist of nested and changeable groups, but such a characteristic is more important in authoritarian polities that are based on a systematic mechanism of political exclusion of some groups and, conversely, the cooptation of clients and supposedly loyal groups. An authoritarian regime is also an equilibrium based on a winning coalition whose total support is essential for the incumbents to remain in power, as Mubarak felt when the military refused to repress protestors in 2011.

The military, with its enduring coherence and legitimacy, was thus the backbone of the authoritarian equilibrium ruling Egypt, as highlighted during the 1990s and 2000s by speculations about the military’s reaction to the preparations for succession in Egypt. The military could not dictate Mubarak’s successor, but it was essential that any successor would have a mutually supportive relationship with the military.

The new era opened up by the 2011 revolution in Egypt offers a fundamental challenge to the forces at the core of the ruling equilibrium in Egypt. It forces the military to openly step into the political arena, at the cost of losing its longstanding “natural” legitimacy. The military has used a clever strategy to keep its legitimacy during the various phases of the revolution. During the 18-day uprising, the military appeared sympathetic to the demonstrations, thereby preserving its positive image. During SCAF's direct rule (February 2011-June 2012), the military highlighted its “revolutionary” stance, but its prestige was severely affected by SCAF’s calamitous governing.  SCAF's leaders strategized by evading direct contact with the public; they had their statements read by a military spokesman, thereby leaving the public ignorant of the council’s true intentions. The restoration of military prestige was the prime goal of the newly appointed Minister of Defense, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, and declarations were issued, especially through a Facebook page, of the military’s achievements in enhancing Egypt's security and stability. Then, with the renewed demonstrations in public spaces calling for Mohamed Morsi's ouster at a time of constitutional debates (November-December 2012), it was almost as if Egyptian society had forgotten about SCAF's despised rule. After Morsi's ouster on July 3, 2013, and quite contrary to his predecessors (Tantawi, Annan), Sisi stepped into the limelight and faced the public, cultivating a “Sisi fever” among ordinary Egyptians that, despite considerable criticism from his opponents, was well received in Egypt in 2013 and 2014.

The essential question now is how the military can rebuild a new Egyptian political system with other political forces, even if the result is not the ideal democratic system that proponents have desired.

The Dynamics of Contention between the Military and the Emerging Egyptian Political Scene

From February 2011 to June 2012, SCAF said that it would return power to civilians, but it also tried to dictate the terms of giving back control. It acted less out of a clearly designed ex ante master plan than out of trial and error and incompetence, but always kept a strong sense of its own interests and endeavored to impose its own understanding of how a transition should proceed. SCAF suspended the 1971 constitution and asked a body of legal experts to amend nine articles that were then endorsed through a popular referendum on March 19, 2011 (by which the military and the Muslim Brothers became de facto allies). It then issued its “Provisional Constitutional Declaration” on March 30, 2011, overriding the national referendum and giving itself full powers. In the fall of 2011, the so-called al-Selmi document (or “Basic Principles of the Constitution of the Egyptian State,” articles 9 and 10) was circulated and gave a vivid sense of what the military was looking for in the future constitution. SCAF forcefully tried to control the pace and extent of political and economic change, alienating many constituencies in the country. It achieved few of its stated intentions, failing bitterly at efforts to achieve legitimacy, economic success, or even stability.

This situation explains the ease with which SCAF’s junior members struck a deal with Morsi in 2012 to extricate themselves from power and from the constitutional conundrum, with the elected president endowed with executive power and SCAF retaining legislative power.[2] An important part of the deal between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood was the latter’s supposed ability to get demonstrators off the streets and manage the country, especially the economy.

But the military also fought for its own interests. The military’s leadership demanded three main guarantees for the transition to civilian rule: a veto over political decisions, especially in regard to foreign policy (specifically, relations with Israel and with the United States as the main provider of aid); immunity from prosecution by civilian courts for crimes committed during SCAF’s direct rule; and some autonomy to manage its own affairs, its budget, and its expanded economic “empire.” The “Morsi Constitution” of December 2012 (articles 195, 197, and 198) incorporated some of the core demands of the military, which in some sense was the realization of what SCAF had sought since Mubarak’s ouster.

The enduring failures of the Morsi government led the military to shift its bet toward other ways to rule Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year presidency was unable to transcend its in-group trust network, which was demonstrated after the November 2012 decrees granting sovereign powers and immunity to Morsi. Mounting challengers—culminating in the more organized Tamarod, or rebellion, movement—were moved by a deep sense of frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood government, which had come to treat people the same way the Mubarak regime did.[3] The Brotherhood also alienated parts of the state apparatus, especially the judiciary, with its strategies of control, and was not trusted by the police that, though weakened, had been wary from the beginning of the Muslim Brothers’ presidency. In addition, the military was troubled by the Muslim Brotherhood government’s loss of control in the Sinai, a very strategic region for the military and a hot spot vis-à-vis relations with Israel and the United States. Finally, the Brotherhood failed to really rule Egypt and offer prospects of change or tangible economic progress that would translate into people’s ordinary lives. Starting on December 11, 2012, the military first offered “a social dialogue” between a wide spectrum of political forces and Morsi; the military was careful not to call it a “national political dialogue,” though it was clearly a political act. Then Sisi canceled the proposal. Then, after a few months of status quo, the military decided to surf on the wave of change and popularity rather than wait and let Egypt fall again into massive mobilizations—which would potentially have led the Muslim Brothers to call on the military to reestablish order. The current, revamped constitution—led by the military and the judiciary—represents the weight of the new forces behind Morsi’s ouster, and was led by the military and the judiciary. The autonomy of the military (budget, military tribunals, National Defense Council, Ministry of Defense) is now much more guaranteed than in the 2012 constitution (now superseded) or even in the 1971 constitution (in force until 2011).

In this complex political game to find a formula to rule Egypt, the military’s main asset is its coherence. The military harbors an image of “obeying law and military orders” (taltazim b-il-qanun wa-l-qawa‘id al-‘askariyya) and enshrines coherence and discipline (al-indibat). Hence, the military has acted as the facilitator of a new ruling “coalition.” However, the coalition actors do not carry the same weight or capabilities as the military, and the new equilibrium is unstable. Furthermore, the actors are not all ideologically aligned—some revolutionaries from the Tamarod movement may join, but they are not organized as political actors, and some influential Salafi movements will join out of anger against the attempts of the Muslim Brothers to control their mosques.

The return of the Ministry of Interior’s alliance with the military was essential in July 2013. The Ministry of Interior is a huge corporatist actor—even the military’s 450,000-strong force was outnumbered more than three or four times by the Ministry of Interior’s various security forces and informants under Mubarak. However, the ministry was a subservient part of the Mubarak regime and was unable to act on its own as the military was able to through SCAF.[4] Furthermore, the Ministry of Interior was reviled in Egypt in 2011 and was a symbol of the repression that was the core of the Mubarak regime. The January 25, 2011 revolt was a fight against police brutality, as were numerous subsequent mobilizations, as highlighted by the famous slogan “ihna al-sha‘b, al-khatt al-ahmar” (we are the people, the red line), which was addressed to policemen and may be contrasted with another famous slogan favoring the military, “al-jaish wa-l-sha‘b yad wahid” (the people and the army are one hand).

The Ministry of Interior’s primary objective after Mubarak’s removal was to remain low-key and to survive, but also not to show support for the new regime. The disappearance of security personnel from the streets during Morsi’s tenure was a way to face the deep-seated hatred against it but also to embarrass the new government, even if Morsi brushed aside all initiatives to reform the police and did not publicly address the accusations of torture and brutality by the ministry. The alliance of an assertive military and an unreformed police has been at the core of the new provisional regime that has replaced Morsi, legitimized by a new “war on terror” against jihadis and the Muslim Brothers, now equated as a terrorist organization.

Conclusion: What Kind of “Civilianization” of the State?

Full-blown military regimes were said to have become something of a dying breed. The problem in Egypt is not just military interventions as a consequence of the military’s desire to rule: the Egyptian military has claimed that it did not intend to rule in place of civilian politicians in the post-January 2011 era (when a military discourse could be publicly aired, contrary to the military’s quietism of the Mubarak era). SCAF’s rule was not a full-blown military regime with SCAF acting as a junta to impose military rule; SCAF governed behind the formalities of transitional rule and had no pretense of instituting a new regime. Analysis therefore has to shift toward the broader question of the state and how to govern Egypt with its subterranean forms of military influence. The Algerian case comes to mind, with the domination of the executive branch by the officers’ corps and the security services, but the contrasts are also important between these cases. In Algeria, the inherited “pluralism” left from the war of independence acts inside the officers’ corps as a behind-the-scenes political game (called “le pouvoir” by Algerians) and has no counterpart in Egypt. Militarization in Egypt is related to the central posture of the military as the enabler of any ruling coalition and as an actor with an important legitimacy of its own. Comparative insights from East Asia or Africa will focus on cases in which the perpetuation of military, political, and security services’ privileges and prerogatives allow the military some encroachments into the basic ways a polity is ruled. In Egypt, the political system changed after January 2011 from Mubarak’s “authoritarian coalition” to one in which the military has retained a crucial say in the way the regime is built and how institutional positions are filled, and one in which the military has also stepped more openly into the limelight.

Hence, security sector reform and democratic control of the military cannot take place on their own as specific agendas. Police reform is still in its infancy or has not begun at all, the military has enshrined its privileges in the constitution, and, most importantly, the military remains informally very important in the Egyptian polity as a “balance holder.” Security sector reforms have to be related to the political processes needed to put them into effect. True civilianization will begin when ruling Egypt is no longer conditional on the military’s acquiescence or convening a ruling coalition, or on ideas related to the role of the military as the savior of Egypt, but on such civilian political processes as elections, parties, and coalitions.[5] The influence of U.S. military aid as leverage on the Egyptian military is overrated; aid can be compensated for in the short term by China and Russia, and in the medium term, strategic interests will weigh in favor of Egypt. Thus the Egyptian military is not just an aggressive lobby in the Egyptian system, but the actor around which a ruling body coalesces. Without addressing this specific “militarization” of the regime’s character (which is quite different from the military openly and overtly taking control as a junta), civilianization will remain a void slogan and reforms will not proceed.

[1] Dina Ezzat, “Who Will be Egypt’s Next President?,” Ahram Online, 19 December 2013,

[2] June 2012’s annex to the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration.

[3] In November 2012, just before Morsi was lauded internationally for brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Egyptians were much more moved by a horrendous train accident in which the train struck a school bus, killing more than 50, most of them young children. The accident galvanized the people and signaled to ordinary Egyptians how public services and infrastructures had deteriorated, and that the Muslim Brotherhood had done nothing to address these problems.               

[4]After 2011, and especially during SCAF’s rule, military officers have been more and more involved in day-to-day policing and repression or at least coordination with the Ministry of Interior’s paramilitary forces (al-Amn al-Markizi, the Central Security Forces); during SCAF’s rule, the military rode herd over the Ministry of Interior’s forces and selected the high hierarchy’s replacement in the ministry.

[5] Fahmi Huweidi, “Al-Jaysh wa-l-Siyasa” (in Arabic), al-Shorouk, 24 April 2014. 24/04/2014