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The Egyptian Army and Obama

The generals in Cairo will now test the ­president’s tolerance for autocracy.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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An unrelentingly severe critic of the fallen Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, my longtime Tunisian taxi driver Moussa, who has lived in Brussels for 20 years, sounded an optimistic note last week. “[The army] may not screw us. The officers know that Tunisia has fundamentally changed. I can’t believe what the Tunisian press is saying now—nothing is off-limits—and the army hasn’t tried to stop them. The army knows that the people will never forgive them if they again imprison and torture people.” Though the old regime is far from dead in Tunisia, Tunisians are collectively crossing their fingers that the military, as an institution, is willing to take a risk on a new order where its perks are far from guaranteed. 

The Egyptian Army and Obama

AP Photo, Nile TV

Should we expect the Egyptian military—the first Arab army to be “modernized” (Tunisia’s was the second)—to remain true to “the Arab street,” which has now downed the most powerful Arab dictator? The army in Egypt is massively invested in the dictatorial status quo that President Hosni Mubarak built after he assumed power from the slain Anwar Sadat in 1981. Where once the military life guaranteed at best a genteel poverty, senior Egyptian officers now live like pashas, with incomes far beyond their official salaries. Add to this pyramid of military privilege
civilian relatives of senior military officers who’ve used their access and protection to game Egypt’s system of crony capitalism, and mid-ranking officers who can’t conceive of themselves outside of the orbit of their uniformed patrons, and you’ve got a legion of men and women who really don’t want Egypt to change that much. The enemy of reform and democracy in Egypt—and everywhere else in the Arab world—isn’t only the power of dictators and their families but also the appetite and expectations of their armed forces, which created modern authoritarianism. 

The democratic wave that has finally struck the Arab world is, among other things, a civilian protest movement against the militarization of Middle Eastern life. Old Oriental despotisms, for all their unpleasantness, did not fundamentally assault the civilian nature of Muslim societies, where men of the cloth, letters, the bazaar, and small-town aristocracies defined the “good and noble.” The Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, the icon of modern, demagogic militarism, swept away the old world and promised a nationalist and Arabist renaissance. Spiritually crushed by the 1967 Israeli victory, and economically impoverished by socialism, this new-age authoritarianism halfheartedly discovered capitalism in the 1980s. Robbed of ideology and military purpose (defeating Israel became a millenarian dream, like the ancient Arab aspiration to conquer Constantinople), Arab armies became instruments of political oppression and private enrichment. 

They did, however, remain conscript armies. Unlike the despotisms of old, which were dependent on small, professional armies of slave soldiers (in Egypt, they were called “mameluks”), modern autocracy has depended on the common man. Nationalism, the most successful Western export to the Muslim world, is sacred for most Egyptians—even for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose universalist Islamic aspirations have been in a tug-of-war with Egyptian nationalism for 80 years. And this patriotic common man has increasingly embraced democracy as the only legitimate organizing political ideal.


 

How much has the seductive idea of democracy percolated from the bottom up, and from the top down via intellectuals, into the officer ranks of the Egyptian Army? Do the senior officers really believe in a “soft landing” in a democratic Egypt? A democratic Egypt, cursed with bloated bureaucracies and a still vibrant socialist ethic, would likely cut back military expenditures severely in an effort to maintain public-sector civilian jobs. More or less, the Egyptian Army has been able to wall off its defense budget—and senior officers’ posh lifestyles—from economic reality. America’s yearly billion-dollar military-aid package has allowed the Egyptian Army to enjoy toys— advanced Abrams tanks, F-16 aircraft, and Israeli-ship-killing surface-to-surface missiles—that would be unthinkable if purchased only through Egyptian taxes. It’s a decent guess that a democratic Egypt will distance itself from America’s military largesse—seeing it, not incorrectly, as an enabler of autocracy. A democratic Egypt will demand a more humble, less well-fed military establishment. Do Egyptian military officers believe that angry liberals and even angrier Muslim Brothers won’t eventually expropriate all that their families have accumulated under martial rule? 

The denouement of Mubarak’s reign may give hope to the military for a soft landing. The lack of violence in the demonstrations throughout the country—despite the bloody provocations of Egyptian security forces—has been astonishing. It would be unwise to underestimate the vengeful sentiments that are undoubtedly widespread or to overestimate the moderating effect of Egypt’s age-old settled culture, which has little of the open nastiness so common in Algeria or Iraq. But the restraint of the demonstrators has been—for the Egyptians themselves—ennobling. This pacifism has certainly deterred the army from brutality; it may well push the military towards backing more representative government over the coming months. 

We should, however, assume that the military’s recidivist impulse is strong. We should also assume that the Egyptian Army doesn’t yet view the events of January and February as the prelude to a real revolution, but only as an uprising that required Mubarak to depart in order to preserve “the system.” 

President Obama appears to be abandoning the pro-authoritarian, status-quo realism that had defined his administration’s policy toward the Middle East. The June 12, 2009, electoral earthquake in Tehran barely shook the White House (the diplomatic effort to stop the mullahs’ quest for nuclear weapons trumped whatever pro-democracy empathy President Obama may have felt for the Iranian demonstrators). But Tahrir Square may have finally broken the hold that Washington’s authoritarian-tolerant liberal foreign-policy establishment (think the pro-Mubarak emissary Frank Wisner) had on the president. Bill Burns, Middle Eastern dictators’ favorite diplomat at the State Department, may still be number three at Foggy Bottom, but it’s a good guess that he will no longer be making quips about how U.S. foreign policy aims to turn “Putin into our [Russian] Mubarak.” (The idea actually now has a certain appeal.) 


 

Contrary to so much chic leftist chatter, the United States still has an important role to play in Egypt’s democratic transition. We still possess considerable financial leverage on Egypt’s military; we should not hesitate to use it if the army doesn’t immediately end the draconian police-state emergency regulations and soon establish a transitional government whose membership includes prominent nonmilitary men. A transitional government should be open to all—including members of the Muslim Brotherhood—and must have real authority. That government, not the military, should set the calendar for new elections and decide whether Egypt’s current constitution can be revised or is better chucked into the trash bin. (Probably the latter.) 

As President Obama may know now, the most difficult time for his administration lies in the months ahead, when the Egyptian Army will test to see how much autocracy (and wealth) it can keep in its hands. There will surely be an enormous temptation in Washington, on both the left and right, to side with the army for a “slow” transition or even a “restrictive democracy,” where the Muslim Brothers are excluded from parliament. Much of Washington, like most in the European Union, wants to support democracy in Egypt, but a democracy that follows the exact same policies as Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Such a democracy is unlikely to be born. Egyptians need the liberty to grow as they see fit and as they can. Real liberal democracy in the Arab world lies down this difficult path. There is reason to hope that President Obama, whose sympathies in the past inclined him toward “authentic” third-world potentates, may understand now that George W. Bush was right to castigate the foreign policy that Bush senior adored. In any case, President Obama and Egypt are now tied together. If Egyptian democracy gets off the ground, the odds are decent that the president will be able to reinvent himself overseas. That may not be enough to save him in 2012 from his domestic policies. But it might.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).

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