The army's revolutionary mission
The revolution of 2011 put Egypt's premier institution to the test. It did not fail the nation in its moment of dire need, writes Galal Nassar
Two great revolutions in modern Egyptian history are separated by an interval of 59 years. The first was spearheaded by a group that called itself the Free Officers' Movement, which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy headed by Farouk, "King of Egypt and Sudan". However, what began as a military coup was soon transformed into a genuine revolution that embraced the entire Egyptian populace, from the bottom to the top of the social ladder and horizontally across the whole of urban and rural Egypt. Indeed, historians believe that one of the main reasons for the success of this revolution was the direct and continued support by the people for the army as it laid the foundations for our first republic, which lasted from president Gamal Abdel-Nasser through president Anwar El-Sadat until the end of the rule of president Hosni Mubarak.
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An Egyptian army officer tries to calm down the crowd as a protester shouts slogans during a demonstration near Tahrir Square
The second revolution was launched on 25 January 2011, when the youth of Egypt converged on Tahrir Square and other central locations in the capital and other Egyptian cities in order to demand the end of the existing regime, which had become a byword for rampant corruption against a backdrop of soaring poverty and unemployment rates. The watchword of this movement was peaceful protest, in spite of which the riot police and other security elements, acting on the instructions of certain corrupt individuals in government and the National Democratic Party (NDP), unleashed a brutal attempt to suppress the demonstrations. Violence and chaos erupted, leading to many tragic deaths and hundreds of wounded. At 4:45pm on 28 January the Armed Forces were called in to take command and restore order following the security breakdown. The moment the Armed Forces arrived in the streets, the army command announced that its officers and soldiers were not there to protect the regime but rather to serve the people. It further reassured the demonstrators that the army would not harm the protesters and that it supported their legitimate demands. In a sense, the army was reciprocating for the support it has received from the people since 1952, helping it to develop into one of the 10 largest, best equipped and best trained armies in the world. The people stood solidly behind their army in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973, in the Gulf War of 1992 and in its capacity as a peace-keeping force in many of the world's most dangerous trouble spots.
"I feel that he's close to us. His confident smile and his earnest bearing make me feel safe," a woman said of a soldier as she snapped a picture of her children atop an M1 A1 Abrams alongside the tank's crew. The photograph will show her children presenting flowers to these soldiers and the officer who was commanding the fleet of tanks along one of the major thoroughfares in downtown Cairo. There is abundant photographic testimony to this peaceful and sympathetic interaction between Egyptian soldiers and the demonstrators and observers, a phenomenon that caught the attention of the domestic and international media, which cast a spotlight on the role the army played as a defender of the revolutionaries and the people. Indeed, one of the main factors that strengthened the protesters' resolve and gave them the courage to raise the threshold of their demands and turn out in larger numbers was their confidence that the army rank and file had its principles and priorities clearly set. It would not turn a single rifle, mortar or tank against a civilian. Its function was to protect the nation, the people, and public and private property.
"No violence" was the army's watchword throughout the ensuing developments up to Friday 11 February. Events that day offer another poignant illustration of this when demonstrators marched on Orouba Palace to reiterate their demand that the president step down. A protester there relates, "the commander of the Republican Guard tank turned the tank's gun away from the demonstrators and told us, 'I will not point this gun at you no matter what happens.'" The hours that had preceded this moving scene had been extremely fraught, with desperate attempts to avert a confrontation between the Republican Guard and the demonstrators which would have resulted in a bloodbath. A military source told Al-Ahram Weekly, "the military command decided to secure the safe and honourable departure of the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, to protect a military symbol that had fought in the battle to liberate the Sinai in October 1973, and to safeguard the image of the president of Egypt and the prestige and stature of this office while remaining fully sympathetic with the demands and aspirations of the demonstrators." And that is indeed what happened. The president, his family members and aides who insisted on accompanying him, boarded helicopters that took them from Orouba Palace to Almaza air force base east of Cairo.
THE ARMY TAKES OVER: At precisely 6pm on Friday, 11 February, after 18 days of continuous demonstrations, vice president Omar Suleiman appeared on television to announce that Mubarak had stepped down and was handing the reins of government to the Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF). The council then issued a series of communiqués intended to reassure the revolutionaries that their demands and aspirations were being met. The communiqués reiterated the army's commitment to genuine political reform, investigations into the violence and human rights abuses committed against the demonstrators, and to the pursuit and prosecution of the foremost symbols and perpetrators of corruption. The council further dissolved the People's Assembly and the Shura Council, suspended the constitution and set a six-month deadline for drafting the amendments needed to pave the way for free and fair presidential elections.
As it formulated its positions, the HCAF kept its finger on the pulse of the street while consulting lawyers, jurists and experts in constitutional law. The legalistic language in which the council couched its statements was one of its ways of declaring that the army was not an alternative to constitutional legitimacy. As a military source told the Weekly, from day one the HCAF was determined to reassure the public that martial law would not last long and that the council would hand over power to a civilian president or government as soon as it could be certain that stability had been restored, that the necessary constitutional amendments were prepared, and that the committees had been formed to prosecute the corrupt and reclaim the wealth that rightfully belongs to the Egyptian people.
All sources informed about the discussions of the council agree that its members are fully aware of how low the public confidence in the governing authorities had sunk, which is why they are determined to rebuild public confidence day after day and through communiqué after communiqué. They want to reassure the people that a professional military command is in charge and that its task is to:
- Protect the country's borders and territorial sovereignty, and to defend the welfare of the nation on land, sea and in the air.
- Safeguard constitutional legitimacy (the system of government, government institutions, public property and, above all, the constitution itself).
The military salute performed by General Mohsen El-Fangari, assistant minister of defence and official spokesman of the HCAF, in honour of the revolutionaries who had sacrificed their lives in the course of the revolution was further testimony to the council's sympathy with the revolution's demands and its determination to win the trust and confidence of the protesters and the greater public. I was among a crowd of people gathered around a television in a downtown coffeehouse when General El-Fangari appeared on the screen, delivered the council's third communiqué and then paused to deliver that solemn salute. That one clearly sincere gesture won the admiration and respect of all around me. "Those are really honourable people," said one of the spectators while another fought back his tears prompted by sorrow over the lives of the young men and women who had died for their cause and by the poignancy of the new spirit that is unfolding in Egypt.
In the rush of events, some may have forgotten that the first meeting of the HCAF and the issuing of its first communiqué took place before the announcement of Mubarak's resignation. On the evening of Thursday, 10 February, the council met for the first time without Mubarak's presence in his capacity as supreme commander of the Armed Forces. Instead, the meeting was chaired by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, general-commander of the Armed Forces and minister of defence and military production of the 18-member council. That Thursday marked the third time in our modern history that this council -- the highest authority in the Egyptian army -- decided to sit in continuous session. The first and second occurred in 1967 and 1973, during the wars that took place in those years. Apart from states of emergency, the council meets semi-periodically in commemorative sessions to mark, for example, the victory of the October war.
Because the membership of the council is based on rank or office, its composition could change every six months depending upon whatever promotions and transfers might occur within the Armed Forces. In addition to Field Marshal Tantawi, its current members include Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff General Sami Anan, Commander of the Navy General Mohab Mamish, Commander of the Air Force General Reda Hafez, Commander of Air Defence General Abdel-Aziz Seifeddin, Commander of the Central Zone General Hassan El-Rwini, Director of the Department of Military Morale General Ismail Etman, Assistant Minister of Defence (and official spokesman for the council) General Mohsen El-Fangari, Commander of the Border Patrol General Mohamed Abdel-Nabi, Commander of the Third Field Army General Mohamed Hegazi, and Commander of the Second Field Army General Sobhi Sedki. The council also consists of the commanders of the northern, southern, and western zones, as well as the director of Military Intelligence.
If the HCAF's chief responsibilities in times of war and crisis are to protect the country and to safeguard constitutional legitimacy, in times of peace it oversees the tasks needed to maintain military preparedness and to enhance the army's combat efficacy. It also participates in economic development. The Ministry of Defence is the higher command of the Armed Forces. Beneath it are ranged the major branches of the military, such as the air force, the navy, air defence and the various land forces such as the infantry, the armoured divisions, military engineers and the artillery forces.
As can be seen, the council reflects the make-up of the Egyptian national defence system in its entirety which includes, in addition to the major branches of the Armed Forces, the National Security Forces which are under the command of the Ministry of Interior and the Republican Guard and Border Patrol which are under the command of the Ministry of Defence. The Republican Guard are an elite in the army. They only take instructions from the general commander of the Armed Forces if the president issues a decree to this effect, as occurred during the 1973 War. Even so, the highest ranking officer in this force is a lieutenant general. The mission of the Republican Guard is not only to protect the president but also to protect the republican system, which entails protecting such institutions and edifices as the presidential palaces, command centres, presidential airports, as well as state edifices such as the People's Assembly, the Shura Council Building, the Constitutional Court and the State Council building. The Republican Guards consist of infantry, commando and motorised vehicle units.
THE ARMY'S HISTORY OF PATRIOTISM: The modern Egyptian army was first formed by Mohamed Ali in the 1830s. The Ottoman-appointed wali of Egypt wanted to secede from the Ottoman Empire and towards the fulfilment of this ambition he imported advanced arms and engaged military experts from Europe. With his new army, he succeeded in asserting his control over the whole of Egypt. He then seized control over most of the Levant and the Hijaz.
Under the British occupation, the Egyptian army was reduced, at its command level, to members of the Egyptian aristocracy and feudal class loyal to the monarchy. So the situation remained until the 1952 Revolution, as did the use of the Turkish ranks, such as yuzbashi (captain), sagh (major), bimbashi (lieutenant colonel) and amirilay (brigadier general).
1952-1970: For the most part the shape and creed of the Egyptian army today dates from the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the leader of the Free Officers' Movement which overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Nasser re-established a truly national army whose first allegiance was to Egypt. However, he also opened the way for the intervention of the army in domestic politics, to the extent that it was said that it was the army that produced the head of state. There obviously must be some truth in this, given that all of Egypt's presidents since 1952 emerged from the military establishment.
Not long into his rule, president Nasser reoriented Egypt towards the Soviet camp, from which he received arms and military expertise. Under Nasser, Egypt fought three wars: the war to fight off the Tripartite Aggression in 1956, the war in Yemen in 1962, and the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, which ended in Egypt's defeat, the loss of the Sinai and the arrival of Israeli forces to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.
Until this war, the Egyptian army had been distributed between four regional commands: the Sinai, the Suez Canal Zone, the Delta and the Upper Nile Valley up to the border with Sudan. Defence of the remaining 75 per cent of Egyptian land fell to the Border Patrol Forces. Following the war, the army was reordered into the second and third field armies, which were primarily deployed along the eastern front.
1970-1981: Although the redevelopment and modernisation of the Egyptian army began under Nasser, it was his successor, president Sadat, who reaped the fruit of these efforts in the 1973 War. In this war, which was preceded by a series of campaigns known collectively as the War of Attrition, Egypt launched a massive offensive against the eastern bank of the Suez Canal while the Syrian forces launched a simultaneous assault against the Golan Heights. The war began at 2pm on 6 October 1973, when Egyptian forces staged their famous crossing of the canal and overwhelmed the Israeli defences on the Bar Lev line, and it ended with the reassertion of Egyptian control over the canal zone.
This victory ushered in a period of peace negotiations which culminated in the Camp David Accord of 1979. The treaty laid down certain conditions regarding the size and quality of the Egyptian arsenal and the areas of Egyptian military deployment in the Sinai, in exchange for the restoration of the Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty with the exception of Taba which became the subject of a long legal dispute that was only resolved in the Mubarak era.
The history of the Egyptian army under Sadat is, perhaps, best defined by two developments. The first was the expulsion of the Soviet experts and advisors shortly before the October war, which triggered a severe diplomatic crisis between Cairo and Moscow, its closest strategic ally at the time. The second was the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, which effectively transformed the army from one that belonged to a frontline state in the confrontation with Israel to one that belonged to a state that was no longer on a war footing. The shift would inevitably have a radical impact on the combat creed of the Egyptian military.
1981-2011: Hosni Mubarak became president in 1981 following the assassination of Sadat during a military display held to commemorate the victory of the October war. It was under Mubarak that the army had its first experience on the domestic front. In 1986, it had to be called in to put down the Central Security Forces' uprising, which led to numerous death and wounded and the imprisonment of hundreds, most of whom had been members of the security forces.
According to the statistics of 1989, the Egyptian army numbered 320,000 troops, 180,000 of whom were draftees. While most were detailed to the second and third field armies, many were attached to the formations in the Delta and Upper Egypt and along the border with Libya. However, it was then decided to divide the military zones into eight and to station special forces and paratroopers near the capital, closer to central command. The military zone commanders were assigned the tasks of coordinating with the provincial governors and civil authorities with an eye to preserving domestic security.
This was also a period that brought significant change at the level of the senior military leadership as well as a qualitative step-up in the drive to obtain arms and military expertise from the West and from the US in particular. Not only did this generate closer military cooperation, as exemplified by the Shining Star joint manoeuvres, it led to the Armed Forces becoming a major component of the international coalition to liberate Kuwait in the Desert Storm campaign of 1990-1991.
Egyptian arms and equipment come from diverse sources due to our military cooperation with a variety of countries, most notably the US, France, Italy, China and Britain. Over the years, Egypt's network of military relations enabled its Armed Forces to replace old and outmoded Soviet weapons as well as to acquire licences to manufacture major military hardware, such as the M1 Abrams tank.
Most experts agree that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the Egyptian military is vastly superior in capacities, combat readiness and equipment than the army that waged the 1973 War. The improvement is in large measure due to the enhanced quality of the combat forces, especially the Air Forces. A report in Haaretz remarked that Egypt's arsenal of F-16s was almost as big as Israel's.
THE EGYPTIAN ARMY AND WIKILEAKS: In spite of the 38 years that have passed since the 1973 war, the Egyptian military creed remains unchanged. All outside pressures have failed to transform the priorities of this establishment from an army committed to the defence of the nation and its border to an army, like the American one, bent on war on terror, one of the effects of which would be to alleviate the pressures on Israel. Proof of this is to be found in WikiLeaks, which published US diplomatic correspondence revealing US dissatisfaction at the fact that the Egyptian army still considers Israel to be Egypt's chief enemy in spite of the more than three decade-old peace treaty.
On the other hand, the documents indicate that Egyptian political leaders adamantly resisted US efforts to modernise the Egyptian army in order to enable it to keep pace with such contemporary challenges as fighting terrorism and piracy. Apparently, officials in Washington secretly complained that the Egyptian army was being used as a tool to protect the ruling regime rather than as a means to protect the security of the country. Since it signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt has received $36 billion in military aid from the US, making it the second largest recipient of US aid in the Arab world. However, we learn from the leaked correspondence, Washington and its largest Arab ally differed over how this money should be spent.
In an electronic correspondence dated 9 February 2010, an American official remarked, "While US-Egyptian military relations are still strong... The Egyptian army is resisting our efforts to change its focus in a way that reflects the new and contemporary regional challenges." Egyptian military officials insist, however, that the threats facing the US are not the same as those facing Egypt. This same communication quotes Assistant Minister of Defence General Mohamed El-Assar as saying that Egyptian defence policy continues to give priority to the defence of Egyptian territory and the Suez Canal and to maintaining a strong conventional army in order to be able to confront other armies in the region. El-Assar is further reported to have said that while Egypt prefers to buy its arms and equipment from the US it draws a red line at Egyptian national security. "Egyptians can always turn elsewhere if they need to," he said.
Other Egyptian officials have complained that the US has increased its military aid to Israel while keeping its aid to Egypt at the same level, a fact that they find all the more disturbing because of Israel's possession of "unconventional weapons" which distort the balance of power in the region and could threaten its stability. Such thoughts and feelings have been part of an unpublicised dispute between Cairo and Washington over the rising levels of US aid to Israel and the need to increase military aid to Egypt, which currently stands at slightly over $1 billion a year.
Interestingly, some Internet sites have carried appeals on the part of Egyptians and other Arabs to liberate the Egyptian army from US aid. They maintain that this patriotic army that defended the demonstrators and the cause of the 25 January Revolution should be freed of all such pressures and constraints, because it has proven itself to be a model of an army in the service of the people and the nation, one worthy of being emulated in the region and the world in the defence of constitutional and revolutionary legitimacy. They further hold that with sufficient financial resources and arms, the Egyptian army could become a powerful shield not just for Egypt but for the Arab nation, as well as a bulwark of stability and a protector of democracy.