Egypt's Military Takes Power: Who's in Charge?

Expert Tony Cordesman Explains the Role of the Egyptian Military post-Mubarak

Feb. 14, 2011 — -- There is no single entity that is the military in Egypt. A careful distinction needs to be made between the real military that total around 470,000 personnel, and are under the Ministry of Defense, and the others in uniform that include the 325,000 personnel in the Central Security Services and 60,000 in National Guard. These forces are under the Ministry of the Interior, and are the primary source of the oppression documented in the annual US State Department human rights report, and of the growing authoritarianism and abuses that Egyptians have been protesting.

While the Egyptian military may well be the ultimate power brokers in an emergency they also do not dominate the economy or civil government, and most of the military -- like other Egyptians -- have been subject to surveillance by Egypt's oppressive intelligence services.

The Egyptian military is not an isolated elite. They are a citizen army. Most actual soldiers are conscript and many junior officers are graduates who serve short tours or who join the military because it is the only job available. Mid-level officers are usually career professionals that are not part of the political side of the military. They have won considerable public respect and support over the years, but they also have lost status as a new class of businessmen and profiteers has acquired great wealth and income disparities have grown. Most can now buy less by way of housing, education for their children, and the key elements of middle-class living than they could in the past.

There were significant numbers of retired senior military officers in Mubarak's inner circle who were given sinecures and senior posts in the civil government and state industries. But the bulk of the officers who leave don't enjoy these privileges. The military is stove-piped by branch and service, and most senior officers do not have special access to those in Mubarak's close circle. Those who did become part of Mubarak's "loyalists" acquired money and status. The farther officers are outside the circle, the more even senior officers rely solely on their income and have lower status and pay.

These distinctions also help explain why the military retains so much popular respect. It is also important to understand that democracy is less important to people here than material benefits, jobs, decent education, effective government services, ending corruption and favoritism, and emphasizing the concept of justice in ways that provide security and honest police and courts. People aren't looking for a vote as much as they want to stop the economic, political and social injustice -- a search compounded by the fact Islam places so much emphasis on justice in every aspect of life and governance. We can't understate the importance of justice to Egyptian people.

At the same time, the military's top priority is to preserve the nation and maintain order and limit chaos or upheaval. They are far less likely to use torture or violence than the forces under Ministry of Interior as the entire command ethic of the professional military is the nation, not the leader, and military discipline puts real restraints on their actions.

However, there also are real limits to their tolerance. They will not accept a breakdown of the government or the economy. They will not accept paralysis or demonstrations that become violent, although they will not support a new wave of repression. Whoever is perceived as the most radically violent will tend to lose.

They good news is that Egyptians tend to be pragmatic and non-violent . And they have the best political jokes around. There are, however, serious legal barriers that need to be addressed.

With Mubarak's resignation there now must be an imminent election and the corrupt parliament has dissolved. There are emergency laws that allow opened-ended abuses. There are many in government and around Mubarak that occupy key posts and have a vested interest in blocking reform. These include top military and ex-military: Lieutenant-Gen. Omar Suleiman, the former head of the military intelligence service and now vice president; Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander and now prime minister, and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, the new deputy premier. They were all part of the Mubarak cadre. They also have little real political experience, no knowledge of reform, and little experience with the civil governance and economic reform Egypt will now need.

Moreover, the military do face a political system where any opposition has been suppressed and sidelined for some 30 years. No political parties have the level of experience in cooperation and governance to rapidly participate in an election or show they can govern. The largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is led a by a gerontocracy and deeply divided between traditionalist and reformers, with extremists at the margins. The other parties are untried, although they have some bright intellectuals, and proven businessmen.

Regime change is only part of the story -- for the military and the Egyptian people: No matter who emerges as the post-Mubarak leader, the economic and demographic pressures that have driven this uprising are going to remain for at least several years.

This uprising takes place in the cauldron of world economic collapse. As in a disturbingly growing number of places throughout the world, in Egypt there are food spikes, fuel spikes, recession, a huge young population, weak job market and growing disparity of income.

There's famine in China. The UN has declared major food shortages throughout the world. In Egypt, many people live pretty close to subsistence. If not for food aid they wouldn't survive at all. There are few jobs here that offer the growing jobless population any status.

This may well mean that whatever new government comes to power has less than a 50 percent chance of surviving for two years. Patience is an Egyptian virtue, but the Egyptian people (and the military) are unlikely to tolerate failed politics, failed governance, and token progress.

This poses a long-term challenge for the US given the fact Egypt controls a critical global trade route in the Suez Canal, and the security of the Canal and pipeline have a major impact on energy prices and the world economy. Egypt is also key to the Arab-Israeli peace and stability in the region, US military overflights and staging, and the struggle against extremism. Egypt is a virtal US national security interest -- in fact, a far more vital interest than Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Middle East analyst and military expert Tony Cordesman is a national security analyst for ABC News and holds the Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.