Editor’s note: Steven Sotloff is a Yemen-based Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is currently reporting from Cairo.
As pro-democracy protests enter their third week in Egypt, demonstrators have not relented in their primary demand – the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. With the president digging in and refusing to yield, all eyes are on the military. Western powers have pinned their hopes on the armed forces, believing their leaders can gently ease Mubarak out of power while preserving stability in Egypt. Such expectations will not materialize, however, because the military elite’s fortunes are tied to Mubarak.
Egypt is a republic led by a civilian president in name only. Mubarak is a former commander of the air force who spent his entire life in the armed forces and brought its command structures into the civilian government. Today, the country is a military regime with current and former officers playing key roles. From formulating government policy to controlling important industries, the armed forces have their hands in all facets of life.
Most senior positions in the government have long been staffed by former officers. Safut al-Sharif, the recently departed head of the ruling National Democratic Party, earned his brass in the military. The same is true for Zakariyya Azmi, who until Saturday was a member of the party’s most important body – the political bureau which sets government policy.
The military also plays an important role in the economy. From baking bread to making gas canisters, the armed forces own thousands of companies, enterprises, and conglomerates. These interests earn it billions of dollars a year. According to estimates, the military controls as much as 30% of Egypt’s economy.
Any instability resulting from a hasty Mubarak departure would jeopardize its fortunes. Last week’s chaos has already forced the military to close its breadbaking factories. Since bread is the key staple in the Egyptian diet and its manufacture is heavily subsidized by the state, its disappearance from store shelves has angered citizens.
In addition to harming the military’s economic interests, a Mubarak departure would adversely affect the personal status and fortunes of the military elite. All of the senior generals are personally linked to Mubarak. The president himself chooses all generals, ensuring they have absolute loyalty to him. A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks quoted a midlevel officer describing Defense Minister Muhammad Tantawi as “Mubarak’s poodle,” an allusion to the undying devotion Egyptian generals feel for their president.
Despite the instability gripping the country, Mubarak has been able to solidify his ties with the security establishment during the crisis. His first move was to name Transportation Minister Ahmad Shafiq as prime minister. Much like Mubarak in earlier times, Shafiq was commander of the air force. He also promoted Tantawi to deputy prime minister. The next day he named former spy chief Omar Suleiman to be his vice president. Such steps were designed to strengthen Mubarak’s support within the army and signal that he would pave the way for the military to retain control of the country after he departs.
Lacking any tangible solutions to the current crisis, Washington is trying to persuade the generals loyal to Mubarak to gently push him aside. But such a policy reflects a misreading of the tea leaves in Egypt. For one thing, the military is politically aloof. The days when officers would plot coups in the barracks in the Arab world are long over. Arab leaders have largely defanged the military. They have studiously studied the Ba’ath revolutions in Iraq and Syria of the 1960s to ensure that their regimes will not fall to similar forces.
Egyptians in the know also say that the senior generals will not push Mubarak aside because they deem such a move nothing less than a humiliation. For this reason talk of urging Mubarak to travel to Germany for medical care is pure fantasy.
With no good cards to play, Washington needs to reevaluate its policy. It should seek to secure stability rather than hasty change, even if this means retaining Mubarak as president in the short term. He has declared his intent to resign in September. Though many fear he will renege on his promise, such a decision would be sure to backfire. Even his supporters say that refusing to step down when his term ends after pledging to do so would anger them as much as it would the protesters in Liberation Square.
Such a scenario is the best the US can hope for in the current environment. Washington should work with the new government in Cairo to ensure a smooth transition of power according to Egyptian wishes, rather than American ones.
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