The New York Times
Succession Gives Army a Stiff Test in Egypt
September 11, 2010
CAIRO — When a boiler at Military Factory 99 exploded in early August, killing one civilian worker and injuring six, a group of employees called a strike to demand safer working conditions, as they are entitled to do under Egyptian law.
Yet, before the month was out, eight of them were on trial — in a military court — for “disclosing military secrets” and “illegally stopping production.”
The message was unmistakable: the rules that apply to the rest of Egypt do not apply to the military, still the single most powerful institution in an autocratic state facing its toughest test in decades, an imminent presidential succession.
President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt with dictatorial powers for 29 years but is ill and not expected to continue in office after his current term expires in 2011. Retired officers, political activists and other analysts here say that the military’s show of force with the striking civilian workers was part of a concerted effort to put the military’s stamp on the choice of the next president.
Technically, Egyptian voters will determine their next leader in the 2011 elections, but in practice the governing party’s candidate is almost certain to win. The real succession struggle will take place behind closed doors, and that is where the military would try to assure its continued status or even try to block Mr. Mubarak’s son Gamal.
Military officials have expressed reservations in interviews and in the Egyptian news media about Gamal Mubarak, one of the most frequently mentioned potential successors of the president. Retired officers and other analysts said the military would not support his candidacy without ironclad guarantees that it would retain its pre-eminent position in the nation’s affairs. Retired officers circulated an open letter criticizing Gamal Mubarak’s candidacy last month, and several retired Egyptian officers said in interviews that they were skeptical of hereditary succession.
The military has much to lose in the transition, these officers and analysts say. Over the years, one-man rule eviscerated Egypt’s civilian institutions, creating a vacuum at the highest levels of government that the military willingly filled. “There aren’t any civilian institutions to fall back on,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about the Egyptian military. “It’s an open question how much power the military has, and they might not even know themselves.”
The beneficiary of nearly $40 billion in American aid over the last 30 years, the Egyptian military has turned into a behemoth that controls not only security and a burgeoning defense industry, but has also branched into civilian businesses like road and housing construction, consumer goods and resort management.
The military has built a highway from Cairo to the Red Sea; manufactures stoves and refrigerators for export; it even produces olive oil and bottled spring water. When riots broke out during bread shortages in March 2008, the army stepped in and distributed bread from its own bakeries, burnishing its reputation as Egypt’s least corrupt and most efficient state institution.
“In times of crisis, they are there,” Salah Eissa, editor of a government-run weekly, Al Qahira, said in an interview. “That’s why you see some people today go as far as to call for military rule.”
To enhance their power and prestige, the armed forces cloak themselves in a veil of secrecy, answering directly to the president, not the prime minister or cabinet. They have ignored calls in Parliament for budget transparency. The names of the general officers are not published, nor is the military’s size, which is considered a state secret (observers estimate the ranks at 300,000 to 400,000).
The military interprets its writ broadly. A retired army general, Hosam Sowilam, recently said the army would step in “with force if necessary” to stop the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, from ascending to power. He added that the military still considered Israel a primary threat, even though the two nations had been at peace for more three decades.
“We shall obey the president because he will be accepted by the people,” General Sowilam said in an interview. “But we will not accept any interference by the political parties into our military affairs.”
While the military is not expected to dictate the governing party’s candidate, Egyptian political observers said it held an informal veto power over who rose to the top of the country’s power pyramid. “The military is seen as the only institution that is able to block succession in Egypt,” said Issandr el-Amrani, a close observer of Egyptian affairs who writes the Arabist blog.
At the same time, the military does not want to be seen as dictating political events. “They are the only and primary force in Egypt right now,” said George Ishak, a member of the secular opposition group National Association for Change. “We do not wish for the military institution to play a political role in supporting anyone over anyone.”
The defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, always appears on the very short list of possible successors to President Mubarak, along with another septuagenarian contender, the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Nevertheless, Gamal Mubarak, who has risen quickly through the governing National Democratic Party, is presumed by many to be the heir apparent; speculation intensified last week when he accompanied his father to Washington for the opening of Middle East peace talks, even though Gamal Mubarak has no official government position.
But many in the military chafe at the idea of a Gamal Mubarak presidency, especially as he ascends to the office through the kind of heavily manipulated ballots to which Egypt has grown accustomed. If he wants to succeed his father, said Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired general, he must win in “clean elections.”
Much of the military’s distrust of Gamal Mubarak stems from his ties to a younger generation of ruling party cadres who have made fortunes in the business world. The military is tied to the National Democratic Party’s “old guard,” a substantially less wealthy elite who made their careers as ministers, officers and apparatchiks. Military officers said they feared that Gamal Mubarak might erode the military’s institutional powers.
“Of course the military has become jealous they are not the only big bosses now,” said General Said. “They feel threatened by the business community.”
General Said, the military adviser to the government’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, still works closely with the defense establishment. He says that he believes a military coup is “not an option,” but that he thinks that President Mubarak’s successor, whether Gamal Mubarak or someone else, will have to convince the military that its position in the Egyptian power structure will remain secure.
And that is likely to include a place in the business affairs of the country. Military Factory 99, for example, produces a variety of consumer goods — stainless steel pots and pans, fire extinguishers, scales, cutlery — in addition to its primary function of forging metal components for heavy ammunition.
In the end, the military court dealt leniently with the strikers. After a quick trial, three were acquitted and the five others received suspended sentences.
But the military had made its point. “There are no labor strikes in military society,” General Sowilam said. “If they don’t want to obey our rules, let them try their luck in the civilian world.”