Why the Egyptian military won’t oust Mubarak

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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10 Comments

  • m3fd2002 says:

    The only way mubarek and company will leave is if they give it away. That is unlikely. The regime will hold out and eventually will re-consolidate, with severe retributions to the “protesters”. The “protester” are in deep water and they know it. Saudi has indicated that they will support mubarek and company regardless of what the US thinks. I’m sure the Israelis have this situation as top priority. The US position has been inconsistent at best, which adds to the instability. The opposition has no answer to what they are looking for, just “regime removal”. What does that mean? I’ve watched the videos carefully, and the numbers stated are way over-estimated. It’s like a Rolling Stones concert. Institutions must remain intact for an orderly evolution of the Egyptian system. Revolution would have far reaching consequences, which no one could anticipate or predict. One observation: We are worried about the Muslim Brotherhood ascending into a positon of power, and will initiate Sharia Law. Guess what. Saudi Arabia has been under Sharia law for decades.
    What gives?

  • Ron says:

    If Mubarak (or his henchman, Omar Suleiman) stays in power even a little while longer, he will definitely seek revenge against those who attempted to topple the regime. Over 300 have already been killed. The protesters know this, that’s why they have no choice but to continue seeking meaningful change so they don’t end up rotting in one of Egypt’s many prisons or torture chambers.

  • blert says:

    And for further news: NBC says Mubarak is to resign this day…

  • kp says:

    Cairo, Egypt (CNN) — President Hosni Mubarak is expected to announce Thursday night that he is yielding power to the nation’s military, a senior Egyptian government official told CNN.

    //edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/10/egypt.protests/

    //www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2048250,00.html

    //www.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/world/middleeast/11egypt.html

    Egypt’s information minister says no.

    //news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/10/egypt-unrest-mubarak-may-address-nation-party-chief-says/

    I guess we’ll see over few hours if Mubrak is going and then over the next couple of days what the Army do. But if the Army has picked sides (given their influence as you point out) then we are in the end game.

    They say the essence of humor is in … timing.

  • Mike says:

    I wouldn’t say this is an end game, more this is the end of the beginning. The pro-democracy forces within Egypt (and without) will have to maintain pressure on whatever interim regime the military puts in place if they ever want to see anything more than a sham election that perpetuates the status quo with a different figurehead.

  • blert says:

    And so Mubarak addresses the Egyptians: I’m not going.
    But, I am giving more executive powers to my chief of secret police….

  • kp says:

    Mubarak walks (like an Egyptian)

    //www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12433045

    //news.yahoo.com/s/ap/ml_egypt

    Vice President Omar Suleiman delivered on Egypt state TV announcing President Mubarak’s resignation: ” In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic. He has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state. God is our protector and succor.”

    NY Times has: “Statement From the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces”

    //www.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/world/middleeast/11egypt-military-statement.html

    Either the Army told him yesterday to go (and he got a face saving speech) or he made the speech and got told last night that he was finished. I suspect the former. But the Army clearly moved to finish this.

    Now we see what happens next.

  • Charu says:

    In both Egypt and in Pakistan the military is the true power, with their tentacles deep in their respective failing economies. The main difference being that the Egyptian military is only interested in maintaining the status quo while continuing to rape and plunder its nation. In Pakistan the military additionally has delusions of regional and global power and a deep sense of inadequacy vis-a-vis Arab Muslims, which it compensates by attempting to be more Islamic than the Arabs. Thus the Egyptian military actively suppresses the Islamists, while the Pakistani military tries to co-opt them and instead ends up being co-opted by them.
    However paranoid or unfriendly the Egyptian military might be towards Israel, they do not organize terrorist attacks or promote jihadi terror or seek WMDs for nuclear blackmail. They do not aid and abet attacks on our soldiers, or take into “protective custody” our enemies. As a professional, albeit corrupt military, they might still be the best bet towards a Turkish-styled “democracy” in Egypt. The rogue Pakistani military on the other hand is clearly setting the stage for an Iranian-styled religious populist takeover of their nuclear-armed state. They are the key source for regional instability, and could eventually threaten the Middle East, working for China against our energy interests there.
    The peoples revolution in Egypt has the ability to democratize their country while keeping the Islamists out from carrying out a putsch. The peoples revolt in Pakistan, when it happens, will likely go the other way and lead to the Taliban takeover of this failed, nuclear-armed state.

  • wallbangr says:

    I don’t think the army had much of a choice. How long could they have stood in the way of the entire populace in revolt? It would have gotten bloody, and even the entrenched officers had to see that his obstinance was only enraging the rest of the world and emboldening the opposition.
    IMHO, if anything, Mubarak’s departure was prolonged in response to the calls from the Obama Administration to step aside. He has always bristled at self-righteous directives from Washington (see Wikileak cables). Given that he has been one of the few friends the West has in that part of the world and has been fairly cooperative with respect to our policies in the region, he likely felt betrayed. After all, his domestic policies have earned little more than lip service from his earstwhile allies. I’m guessing the Israelis would have preferred it if Pres. Obama kept a lid on the freedom and democracy rhetoric. A more tactful approach might have led to him seeing the light before he did. Note the heavy themes of “outside influences” (read: Americans) in his not-quite-abdicating-the-throne speech yesterday. Yes, our backing of despotic regimes in the Greater Middle East (and elsewhere in the world) causes simmering resentments when we go to war somewhere like Iraq under the guise of ousting a despotic ruler for the sake of spreading democracy. Unfortunately, allies like Mr. Mubarak have been preferred as “the devil we know” versus who could rise up and take his place. For that reason, I actually agree with Mr. Softlof’s assertion that calls for his hasty exit should have been avoided.
    I note that the Muslim Brotherhood has kept fairly quiet so far. Likely because the mukabarat has had such an effective boot to their necks under Mubarak. I wonder if their reticence will fade now that the world is watching and the generals have offered up their man. The Hezbollah movement in Lebanon is the model that might lurk behind “the Devil we don’t know.” Are they apples and oranges? Probably. But the beguiling unknown might be more difficult to deal with than the fairly predictable President was.

  • My2Cents says:

    The big question is what will the army do now? All questions and no answers
    Will a new strongman arise from their ranks, or will they decide to step aside and take the roll of an apolitical guarantor of the state? Will they demand a secular state or permit a religious one?
    When will the elections be? How will the elections be organized and monitored? Will international observers be banned, welcome, or intimately involved?

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis