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A Tale of Two Egyptian Armies

2:21 PM, Mar 26, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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The reality is that there is not one Egyptian military—there are two. American policymakers are allied with the first, whom they have to support in order to prevent the second army from rising up.

The first is simply the large institution now headed by Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who as head of SCAF became Egypt’s de facto ruler after Mubarak’s departure. This is the same junta that has governed Egypt since the 1952 revolution that deposed the monarchy and put in power a series of military officers, Mohamed Naguib, Gamal abd el-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and then Mubarak. It’s the most powerful institution in all of Egypt, and therefore the most corrupt, but it also recognizes that there are certain limits it can’t transgress. Tantawi and the others are raising the price on Washington, but they’re not looking to throw away the U.S.-Egypt relationship.

It is that other, second Egyptian army that might choose to rewrite the rules. This is not the military or the vast business interests overseen by the 76-year-old Tantawi. It’s the army that, if the circumstances are right, might someday overthrow those senior officers the Americans trust. Right now, it exists only in the imagination of junior officers; a shadow army with its own agenda, shaped by smoldering resentments and soaring ambitions. This institution engendered the 1952 Free Officers’ Coup and Nasser, the Arab nationalist demagogue who set the template for half a century’s worth of radical Middle East politics. It’s an army of ideological commitment, regardless of the motivating ideas. Almost thirty years after deposing the king, this same army gave rise to the junior officers like Khaled Islambouli who made up the cell that assassinated Sadat.

The Islambouli plot only half-succeeded. Sadat was dead but the Free Officers’ regime lived on. With Mubarak at the helm, it entered its most stable—or, depending on one’s point of view, static—phase. That’s the military regime the White House seeks to preserve, essentially Mubarakism without Mubarak. The nightmare scenario is not merely a political system dominated by Islamists, or a country of more than 80 million on the verge of bankruptcy and threatening to break the peace treaty with Israel. Rather, it’s all of that, and governed by an ideologically ambitious military that wants to revive Egypt’s role as leader of the Arab world. The White House does not want to see that army take shape—but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that $1.3 billion is going to keep it in the shadows forever. 

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