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Politics among Elites

Military Politics

A major issue of Egypt's elite politics was the role of the military in the state. Nasser's Free Officers founded republican government and led Egypt's 1952 Revolution from above. Presidents continued to be ex-military men. But as Egypt entered a postrevolutionary phase, Sadat successfully demilitarized the state and depoliticized the officer corps. Without losing control of the military, Sadat was able to change it from the dominant leadership group in the state into a professional force subordinate to legal authority, radically curtailing its policy-making role, even in defense matters. This change was paralleled by a deradicalization that ended the army's role as "defender of the revolution" and as defender of the Arab nation against imperialism.

Long-term developments that were maturing before Sadat took power facilitated his effort. As many Free Officers acquired wealth and married into great families, they were deradicalized. If the Free Officers had originally been the vanguard of the rising middle class against the traditional upper class, by the late 1970s senior officers had become part of a new establishment. Many officers blamed the 1967 defeat on Nasser, the Soviet Union, and socialist measures. They resented Nasser's scapegoating of the high command for the army's failures. In addition, because the defeat could plausibly be blamed on military involvement in politics, it discredited the military's claim to political leadership and enhanced the prestige of nonpolitical professional officers. Nasser stressed professional competence in the post-1967 reconstruction of the army, and many officers themselves became impatient with political involvement that could detract from the mission of defending the front and recovering the land and honor lost in 1967. The fall of scores of politicized officers in the succession struggle with Sadat--in particular, the group around Marshal Abdul Hakim Amir after the June 1967 War (Arab-Israeli war, also known as the Six-Day War) and the Ali Sabri group--removed the most powerful and politicized Free Officers and dissipated remaining radical sentiment in the ranks of the officer corps. In the succession struggle, Minister of War General Muhammad Fawzi stood with the leftist Sabri faction and tried to mobilize the military against Sadat by accusing him of selling out to the Americans, but Chief of Staff General Muhammad Sadiq and the rest of the top brass stood with Sadat and neutralized Fawzi. No doubt the military's stand was affected by the unpopularity of Sabri's effort to build up the state party as a counterweight to the military, his identification with the unpopular Soviet advisory mission, and Sadat's promise to reinstate officers unfairly blamed for the 1967 defeat. But the long tradition of presidential authority established under Nasser seemed the decisive factor in rallying the professional military to Sadat's side. And this victory went far to reinforce the legal supremacy of presidential authority over all other state institutions.

Nevertheless, Sadat was thereafter embroiled in and won two other power struggles with top generals who contested his defense and foreign policies. In 1972 General Sadiq, then minister of war, seemed to challenge presidential prerogatives. Sadiq considered himself entitled, given his role in Sadat's victory and his Free Officer status, to a share in decision-making power. He used rewards, promotions, and the mobilization of anti-Soviet sentiment in the army to build a personal power base. Sadat viewed Sadiq as a mere member of his staff and saw his anti-Soviet advocacy and his links with Libya's Colonel Muammar al Qadhafi, whom Sadat deeply distrusted, as encroachments on presidential authority. Most serious, Sadiq objected to Sadat's plans for a limited war in Sinai to seize a strip of land across the Suez Canal as a prelude to negotiations with Israel. Believing Egypt unprepared for such an ambitious venture, he argued, in a tense meeting of the high command, against any military action, a course untenable for Sadat. Sadat's move against Sadiq was a classic example of his strategy of control over the military. He waited until he had first expelled the Soviet advisers, thus winning for himself the acclaim of antiSoviet elements and taking the wind out of Sadiq's sails. He obtained the support of other top commanders, especially Chief of Staff Saad ad Din Shazli, who had quarreled with Sadiq over authority in the high command, rallied the field commanders by accusing Sadiq of ignoring orders to prepare for war, and quickly replaced Sadiq with General Ahmad Ismail Ali, a personal friend who lacked political ambition. With the help of these allies, Sadat foiled a pro-Sadiq coup attempt.

Not long after, Sadat faced another challenge, this time from General Shazli. The two men quarreled over the conduct of the October 1973 War, each holding the other responsible for the Israeli breakthrough onto the west bank of the Suez Canal. After the war, Shazli was a leading opponent of the decision to rely on the United States at the cost of weakening Egypt's military ability to take action. Sadat rallied the support of other top officers against Shazli, including then Minister of War Ismail, Air Force Commander Husni Mubarak, and Chief of Operations General Abdul Ghani Gamasi. Shazli enjoyed considerable support in the military but either would not or could not mobilize it before the high command decimated his followers in a wave of purges from corps and division commanders on down. While some of his top generals were in the future to disagree with Sadat's policies, none would again overtly challenge them, and when he chose to dismiss them, they offered no resistance.

The army, however, was not free of disaffection. Some junior officers who risked their lives in the "crossing" of the Suez Canal believed Sadat sold out the gains won on the battlefield. There were recurring signs of Nasserite and Islamic tendencies in the ranks thereafter. But most officers remained loyal for several reasons: the legitimacy Sadat won in the October 1973 War, in which the army had redeemed its lost honor; the realization that the alternative to Sadat might be another war in which this gain might be sacrificed; and the privileges and new American weapons Sadat lavished on the officer corps. The stake in infitah business some officers acquired, the acceptance of professionalism among most senior officers, and Sadat's practice of rotating senior commanders had, by the end of his presidency, seemingly reduced the military from leaders of the regime to one of its main pillars.

Under Mubarak the military remained a powerful corporate actor in the political system, and the case of Minister of Defense Abdul Halim Abu Ghazala manifested both the power and limits of the military establishment. Mubarak was initially less careful than Sadat to rotate military chieftains and to balance them with rival officers or with strong civilian politicians. As a result, Abu Ghazala, an ambitious politicized and conservative general, appeared to establish unprecedented power and acknowledged status as the number-two man in the regime. He positioned himself as champion of arms spending, resisting all decreases in the defense budget and pushing for greater autonomy for the armed forces in the political system. He widened the role of the army in the economy, making it a font of patronage, subcontracting to the private sector, and establishing close relations between the Egyptian arms industry and United States arms suppliers. Abu Ghazala also presided over the growth of privileged facilities for the military, a development that made him something of a hero in the ranks. He appeared to stake out positions independent of the president, apparently objecting to Mubarak's soft-line handling of the Achille Lauro terrorist incident in October 1985. Whereas the president sought to step back from the close alliance with Washington, Abu Ghazala was known for his intimate connections to influential Americans.

In 1987 the army had to be called out when the riots of the security police left the government otherwise defenseless. Having saved the regime, Abu Ghazala seemed to have strengthened his position. He even carried influence in the appointment of cabinet ministers. But Abu Ghazala lacked the crucial control over military appointments to turn the army into a personal fiefdom; Mubarak, waking up to the danger, had by 1987 positioned his own men as chief of staff and as minister of war production. Perhaps aided by Abu Ghazala's loss of American support over an arms smuggling scandal, Mubarak had no difficulty removing him from his post in 1989. Generally, Mubarak tried to curb military aggrandizement that diminished the civilian sector. The professionalization of the officer corps, its tradition of respect for legal legitimacy, and the reluctance of an army lacking in national vision or ambition to assume responsibility for Egypt's problems all made it unlikely that any top general could carry the officer corps in an overt challenge to Mubarak.

Data as of December 1990

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