The army is back
Now is not the first time that the army has ruled Egypt, writes Salah Eissa*
Having stepped down, president Hosni Mubarak left the Higher Council of the Armed Forces in charge. It is not the first time the army has found itself in this position.
The Egyptian army was founded in 1820 by Mohamed Ali, who made it the centrepiece in his project to modernise Egypt. His primary aim was to replace the ragtag militia led by Mamluk chieftains, which Napoleon had thoroughly defeated, with a European-style outfit. Egypt's new ruler proceeded to send the sons of peasants to Europe to learn military arts. He also dispatched dozens of students to study medicine, pharmacology, accounting, management and engineering abroad. These were the men who would later on run the various facilities he established, among which were factories for guns, gunpowder, textiles, ships, sugar, etc.
With his modern army, Mohamed Ali fought successful wars in Higaz, Sudan, Greece, Syria, and Turkey. His grandson, Khedive Ismail, sent his troops to Sudan, Ethiopia, Higaz, Crete and the Balkans. Before Mohamed Ali, Egyptians were not permitted to carry arms. Only the Mamluks who were in charge of the country under Ottoman rule were allowed to make, sell, buy and bear weapons.
Eighty years later, Ahmed Orabi, a son of peasants, led a military mutiny demanding more control for locals over the army and an end to foreign control of the country. The nation rallied around Orabi, but the revolt was short-lived.
Just as Mohamed Ali lost his bid to turn Egypt into a superpower when European countries ganged up against him, and just as his grandson, Ismail, was removed from power because of his modernising ambitions, Orabi was defeated when the British occupied Egypt and crushed his forces.
A civilian revolt in 1919 eclipsed the role of the army for a while. Then the army made a comeback in 1952. Just as was the case under Orabi, the Free Officers owed their ranks to a shift in policy that allowed more middle class Egyptians to join the army. The shift in policy was partly due to the 1936 treaty that relaxed British control of the army and partly because the British thought they may need a larger Egyptian army ahead of World War II.
It was only a matter of months before the Revolutionary Command Council, formed by the Free Officers to run the country after the 1952 Revolution, split on the question of democracy. Some members wanted to reinstate civilian rule, whereas others wanted a "benevolent despot" to lead the country's march towards progress. Things came to a head in March 1954, with the pro-democracy officers defeated. Most were either jailed or given non- political desk jobs.
With the election of Gamal Abdel-Nasser as president in 1956, the army disappeared from public view, but it hovered in the wings. Nasser, Egypt's version of a "benevolent despot", shared power with his best friend, Abdel-Hakim Amer, an ambitious man who was popular among the troops. Amer was so powerful that he refused to dismiss his military commanders who brought about the 1956 defeat and who were largely blamed for the separation of Syria from Egypt in 1961, after a unity that lasted for three years. Having led the country into its worse military defeat ever in 1967, Amer clung on to power, threatening to oust Nasser. He was taken prisoner and died in custody, allegedly by his own hand.
Thereafter Nasser tried to restructure the army, turning it into a professional institution and keeping it out of politics. Nasser's successor, Anwar El-Sadat, tried to take the country further away from military control by introducing a semblance of political pluralism. His hope was that civilian political forces would act as a buffer and keep the army at bay.
Still, there is no denying that since 1952 the army has had a say in various political decisions in the country. And now that Mubarak has stepped down, the army is back at the helm. Does this seem like déjà vu?
* The writer is editor-in-chief of Al-Qahera weekly newspaper.