21st Oct 2016


Egypt: Putting the guns aside

Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been ruling the country. Field Marshall Tantawi, the chairman of this council, has been the de-facto head of state.

The Egyptian people, meanwhile, are waiting for their experiment in democracy to take shape. Parliamentary elections will be held in September of 2011 and a few months afterwards, presidential elections will take place.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Tahrir Square earlier this year: The army has played a leading role in the revolutionary process (Photo: Iman Mosaad)

The first set of post-transition rulers will have a tremendous responsibility to push their country in the right direction. Their struggle will not be easy, as they may need to confront the most powerful actor, the military, for power.

It is unquestionable that the security situation in Egypt is difficult. As the strongest institution in the country, the Egyptian military has the very demanding task of keeping the country stable; meaning maintaining security and recovering the weak economy, while issuing reforms that lead to the democratization the people are thirsting for. However, the military is an incredibly powerful establishment that will not easily renounce its political and economic power.

Since the Free Officer's Revolution in 1952, Egypt has been governed by the military. Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all formed part of the Egyptian military. Although Mubarak is no longer in power, the institution from which he came from is still governing the country. The Egyptian military is extremely powerful due to its size, involvement in business, and public support.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as the 10th largest military in the world, Egypt boasts of having 468,000 active personnel, 479,000 reserves, and 397,000 in paramilitary forces. Also, the US gives $1.3 billion annually to Egypt in military aid.

In terms of business, the Egyptian military has considerable control of many facets of industry throughout the country. Mainly, they are involved in military equipment, food production, cement and gasoline, vehicle production and construction.

Public support is crucial for the military. The armed forces are seen as historically heroic for their involvement in the Arab-Israeli wars, especially the 1973 war, which is viewed as a victory, and in which the then commander of the air force, Hosni Mubarak, emerged as a national hero. Also, military service is mandatory, which of course means that a large percentage of the population, at one point or another, has been in a military environment.

This power has been accrued for over five decades. However, for a successful transition to democracy to take place, the power base must shift. Future leaders, and especially the first democratically elected President of Egypt, will have to walk a thin line while attempting to keep the country stable and enact significant reforms. The president will have to have vision and boldness to distance himself from the military and push them into a secondary role.

Moreover, the executive power will have to pave the road forward with patience and prudence. Changes and reform must occur, but at their adequate pace. If early on in the post-transition government the executive attempts to push away the military, then there might be a danger of a counter-revolution.

For example, such a phenomenon occurred during Spain's transition to democracy, as the military attempted a coup d'etat in 1981, as they feared that the country was sliding out of control. Thus, the eventual governmental leaders, along with youth activists and union leaders, will have to pick the right moments to push for change, all while not stirring up trouble in the country that could cause apprehension for senior military leaders.

Specific measures will have to be taken in regard to economic reforms. Aid packages will have to be carefully implemented into private industry, which of course will create employment. This point is especially significant as unemployment in Egypt is rampant, with youth unemployment at around 30 percent. It is imperative that civilian businesses take control of key sectors that the military controls, like construction and food production.

Also, the military must not be an integral part of the executive leadership. Tantawi and the Military Council must relinquish power once the elections take place and accept that Egypt is no longer a "military" state. And of course, they must abide by their promise of revoking the Emergency Law, which grants strong powers to the executive.

The judiciary has a notable role to play. In the past couple of months, many members of the previous regime, including Mubarak, have been put, or will be placed, on trial for corruption, abuses of power, and firing on demonstrators during the revolution.

However, there have been many accounts of human rights abuses by the military during the transition. Protests have been banned; demonstrators have been killed and injured, as there have been reports of live ammunition being used to disperse protestors.

Evidently, the situation is very tense in Egypt, and the military is not trained to be a police force or a governmental ruling council. Nevertheless, grave mistakes by military personnel have occurred and those responsible should be held accountable. If such equitable justice took place, then perhaps a strong checks and balances system would become institutionalised.

External actors, such as the US and the EU, can play a very important role in limiting the military's role and pushing for civilian rule that is democratic, equitable, and just.

The US can conditionally award its $1.3 billion military aid package based on the military making political reforms that lead towards a smooth transition to civilian power. Obama's recent announcement of lending $1 billion for infrastructure development and job creation and the administration's focus on establishing a strong private sector in Egypt is a very positive sign.

Furthermore, aiding civil society groups and developing basic public services such as health clinics and schools will be critical as well.

The EU can also provide conditional aid packages and temporarily lower tariffs on Egyptian goods (from private industries) entering European markets. Obama indeed mentioned his plan to "promote integration with US and European markets" as a measure to stabilise Egypt's economy.

Ultimately, in order for democracy to flourish in Egypt the military will have to step aside to their role of providing security for the Egyptian state, nothing more and nothing less. This of course means relinquishing the key industries they control and the power they hold politically. If, over time, the military loses relevance in the political and economic arenas, democratization will have a better chance to succeed.

The writer is a researcher with the Middle East Faculty of the Nato Defense College in Rome and studies international affairs at Northeastern University.The views expressed in this article are his own


Europe ready to tackle Greek debt relief

The Greek government has built and broadened alliances in EU institutions and member-states that acknowledge the need to restructure the debt and deliver another economic model for the eurozone.

News in Brief

  1. Canada and Wallonia end talks without Ceta deal
  2. Juncker hopes for Canada accord in 'next few days'
  3. Romania drops opposition to Ceta
  4. Difficulties remain on Ceta deal, says Walloon leader
  5. Brexit could lead to 'some civil unrest' in Northern Ireland
  6. ECB holds rates and continues quantitive easing programme
  7. Support for Danish People's Party drops, poll
  8. Spain's highest court overturns Catalan ban on bullfighting

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFADraft Bill for a 2nd Scottish Independence Referendum
  2. UNICEFCalls on European Council to Address Plight of Refugee and Migrant Children
  3. ECTAJoin us on 9-10 November in Brussels and Discover the new EU Digital Landscape
  4. Access NowCan you Hear me now? Verizon’s Opportunity to Stand for Global Users
  5. Belgrade Security ForumMeaningful Dialogue Missing Not Only in the Balkans, but Throughout Europe
  6. EASPDJoin the Trip! 20 Years on the Road. Conference & Photo Exhibition on 19-21 October
  7. EuropecheEU Fishing Sector Celebrates Sustainably Sourced Seafood in EU Parliament
  8. World VisionWomen and Girls Urge EU Leadership to Help end Gender-based Violence
  9. Dialogue PlatformIs Jihadism Blind Spot of Western Intellectuals ? Wednesday 26 October
  10. Belgrade Security ForumGet the Latest News and Updates on the Belgrade Security Forum @BelSecForum
  11. Crowdsourcing Week EuropeMaster Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding and Innovation! Conference 21 November - 10% Discount Code CSWEU16
  12. EJCEU Parliament's Roadmap for Relations with Iran a Massive Missed Opportunity

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersFish Skin on Bare Skin: Turning Fish Waste into Sustainable Fashion
  2. CEDECOpportunities From the Creation of Synergies at Local Level in the Energy Transition
  3. ACCAFinTech Boom Needs Strong Guidance to Navigate Regulatory Hurdles
  4. Counter BalanceWhy the Investment Plan for Europe Does not Drive the Sustainable Energy Transition
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region Seeks to Make Its Voice Heard in the World
  6. Taipei EU OfficeCountries Voice Support for Taiwan's Participation in ICAO
  7. GoogleDid You Know Europe's Largest Dinosaur Gallery Is in Brussels? Check It Out Now
  8. IPHRHuman Rights in Uzbekistan After Karimov - Joint Statement
  9. CISPECloud Infrastructure Providers Unveil Data Protection Code of Conduct
  10. EFAMessages of Hope From the Basque Country and Galicia
  11. Access NowDigital Rights Heroes & Villains. Who Protects Your Rights, Who Wants to Take Them Away