Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen revises history of Egypt's revolution

Egypt has endured serial internal wranglings that have made it easier to topple successive regimes, according to Hazem Kandil's new book. Mohammed Morsi may have embarked along the very same path.
Cover page of the book Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt
Cover page of the book Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt

Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt

Hazem Kandil

Verso Books


In October 1972 Anwar Sadat met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to discuss plans to retake the Israeli-occupied Sinai. The generals suspected Sadat was planning a limited war - to cross the Suez Canal and then dig in - rather than advance to retake the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. The deputy war minister objected; it would be a military disaster. When he pressed his point, Sadat erupted, according to the minutes cited by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt. "Make one more objection, and you will be asked to stay home," Egypt's president shouted. "Learn your place! You are a soldier, not a politician."

Days later, Sadat dismissed those opposing Scaf members and purged a hundred other high-ranking officers. Sadat called the military council "a group of childish pupils, [composed of] a deceived leftist, an ailing psychopath, a mercenary, a traitor to Egypt, a conspirator."

This is hardly the lofty rhetoric used to describe Egypt's military, especially by a president who was among the Free Officers that seized power in 1952. But it illustrates the complexities and internal rivalries of the Egyptian regime that are the subject of Kandil's bold, revisionist history, which disputes the "misguided belief that the Egyptian regime has maintained its military character." To Kandil the regime is not a monolith but "an amalgam of institutions" - the military, the police and security services, and the political leadership - "each with its own power-maximising agendas".

The political order haphazardly established by the Free Officers evolved over six decades from a military state under Gamal Abdel Nasser to a police state under Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The transition was often tumultuous, arbitrated through military failures, attempted coups, conspiracies and purges. Such instability offers a convincing explanation for the military's backing of the popular uprising of January 25, 2011 that brought down Mubarak and that, in Kandil's view, is the latest episode in this rivalry.

The success of the revolt, he argues, is tied to the weakness of Egypt's regime after decades of internal wrangling - signalled by the military's quick support of the millions of Egyptians in the streets. "The military was no longer invested in the regime," Kandil writes. "It had become the least privileged member of the ruling coalition that emerged out of the 1952 coup." For the generals, "the revolt was not a bullet they had to dodge, but rather a golden opportunity to finally outflank their unruly partners".

Mohammed Morsi's Napoleon moment might cause some to pause over such a conclusion. Recent events are an epilogue of new questions, since Kandil's book ends with the Constitutional Court's dissolution of parliament in June 2012 and the presidential election. Between Morsi's forced resignations of senior generals last August, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and his recent decree granting himself broad, unchecked powers before a constitution passes, some see a power grab against the military. Yet Morsi's move shielded the generals from prosecution for their repressive handling of the post-Mubarak transition. Was Morsi forming a new alliance with officers eager to pass the buck of governing, and the ire of protesters, to the Brotherhood, while ensuring their immunity and interests?

Among the articles in the controversial draft constitution rushed to referendum by an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly are provisions protecting the military's budget from oversight and allowing civilian trials in military courts - among the opposition's most ardent critiques of the army over the last 18 months. Meanwhile every officer in the Interior Ministry's "paramilitary police force", the Central Security Forces (CSF), and secret police remains free from prosecution for crimes committed during and after the 18-day uprising. "The true arbiter of power remains Egypt's all-powerful security apparatus," Kandil declared in an op-ed after Morsi's decree. But how did the police become the guarantor of a regime founded by military officers?

In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt's military dominated political and economic life. Led by self-proclaimed Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer (a rank, Kandil notes, unknown in the Arabic lexicon), the military sought to check Nasser's powers, which he consolidated through new internal police and intelligence forces - what Kandil calls a "security aristocracy". The military and its own intelligence branches became "a state within a state", promoting officers for loyalty over merit and living off Amer's largesse. A junior officer complained to the field marshal that he had to ride public transport to headquarters. Without asking for the officer's name, Amer gave him a note scrawled on part of a cigarette packet. "Dear Fiat manager," it read, "dispense a car immediately to the bearer of this message."

In Nasser's last years after the disastrous military defeat of 1967, and accelerating under Sadat through the 1973 war, the regime's coercive powers passed from the military to the police. With Amer's fall and suspicious death after the war, Nasser purged the army of his loyalists and began to depoliticise its ranks. The number of officers in his cabinet declined from nearly two-thirds in 1967 to less than a quarter in 1970. "With the military set on the path of political marginalisation, the regime had two options," Kandil writes: "to democratise or to find another guarantor of regime stability." Nasser chose the latter. An expanding network of internal state security buttressed the presidency. Substituting "military protection for that of a devastatingly effective civilian security system", Nasser formed the CSF in 1969. In 1971 Sadat purged the military and internal security apparatus of Nasserists in his own "Corrective Revolution". He built up the police state by creating the powerful State Security Investigations Sector, the Interior Ministry's secret police (after Mubarak the Scaf selectively purged and renamed it the National Security Sector). Sadat's pivot to America after the 1973 war and the economic liberalisation of Infitah not only sought to reverse Nasser's brand of state socialism, but to enrich a generation of businessmen who would form the regime's new political core. In 1978, the state's mass political party, Nasser's former Arab Socialist Union, became the National Democratic Party. But its clout and strength depended on the protection of the Interior Ministry, whose agents controlled party membership, investigated businessmen, rigged elections, and cracked down on dissident students and workers.

The police's failure to crush food riots in 1977 - Sadat reluctantly called in the army - convinced the political leadership that regime continuity depended on militarising the police. The CSF grew from 100,000 to 300,000 (under Mubarak it would grow to 450,000, among a security force of some two million). The United States, as it continues to do in 2012, supplied the weapons: over 150,000 tear-gas bombs in 1979 alone. The military's isolation from the ruling partnership of politicians and police reached an apex. Mistrust was so high, Kandil writes, that the Interior Ministry handled Sadat's personal safety inside military bases, including the Defence Ministry.

One of the surprises of Kandil's book is that it often portrays Egypt like Syria in the 1950s and 1960s: a country of attempted coups and counter-coups, and competing intelligence agencies. Only in Egypt, the coups failed, and the regime stayed intact. He ties Sadat's 1981 assassination by Islamist militants to the growing tension between the political regime and army, noting sceptically that, among other details, the assassins all served in the military and that a Military Intelligence colonel and October War hero hatched the plot. Citing Robert Springborg's view that the assassination could not be explained in the absence of the "general dissatisfaction in the military", Kandil believes "it was not a separate incident, but rather the climactic moment in the life of a regime in crisis".

In 1986, when Mubarak had to crush a mutiny of 17,000 poorly paid CSF conscripts, he called in the army. With tanks on the streets, the regime worried about a military takeover that never happened. The army returned to the barracks and its private economic "empire", which Kandil believes may be overestimated when compared to the regime's political and security allies.

Under Mubarak, military spending and economic activity remained relatively static, even though Egypt's GDP grew ten-fold from some $18 billion (Dh66bn) in 1980 to $188 billion in 2010, driven by crony privatisation and the sale of state assets. The economic boom mostly lined the pockets of a new business class of the NDP, along with corrupt ministers and security elites such as longtime Interior Minister Habib El-Adly, who acquired an estimated $3 billion fortune. Yet inflationary economic policies begun under Sadat eroded all government wages. Kandil quotes Yezid Sayigh, who believes the military's businesses, from grocery stores to factories, are kept free from parliamentary oversight "to ameliorate the impact of a rapidly privatising economy on the living standards of officers." Of course, "a few generals are rumoured to have become rich".

This is not to absolve the military of its role in the regime, but to suggest more reasons why it did not rally to defend Mubarak. After explaining how decades of depoliticisation removed another potential ideological movement like the Free Officers from its ranks, Kandil notes obliquely the "failure of the democratic activists to recognise the potentially revolutionary role of the army". He doesn't elaborate on what that role might be, beyond a hope that it could have sidelined its longtime security rival and "authoritarian foe while preserving its own power and privileges within a democratic framework". Egyptian activists likely temper any consideration of the army's "revolutionary" role with its brutal rule after Mubarak, including trying 12,000 civilians before military courts.

Kandil's history roots the uncertainty after Egypt's popular uprising in a view of Egypt's "deep state" as forces long vying for political primacy. The Brotherhood is not alone in a reconstituted, alternative regime. The chants outside the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square have many targets, not only Morsi. They are simultaneous, as they were in the uprisings of February and November 1968, at universities and factories across Egypt, when people chanted: "Down with the military state! Down with the police state!"

Frederick Deknatel is a freelance journalist who writes for The Nation and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Published: December 15, 2012 04:00 AM


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