Challenging Issues for the Egyptian Military

By Dr. Ehud Eilam
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Two intertwined problems confront Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: the deteriorating economy and the looming elections.

By Dr. Ehud Eilam
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Two intertwined problems confront Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: the deteriorating economy and the looming elections.

The military has always been the dominant actor in Egypt since the July 1952 overthrow of King Farouk and the termination of the constitutional monarchy. After then, every president of Egypt has been a military man: Muhammad Naguib (1953-1954), Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-1970), Anwar El Sadat (1970-1981) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011).

The Military in Egypt

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is at present a key player if not the actual leader of Egypt. Tantawi, who had served as military attaché to Pakistan, possibly sees that country as a kind of model for the position the military should continue to have in Egypt.

Tantawi participated directly in most of the military confrontations between Egypt and Israel, and has served as the Minister of Defense since 1991. During his term, Egypt’s military continued to prepare for a possible war with Israel, in spite of the peace treaty and, in a way, because of it. The massive size of the Egyptian military is made possible by generous American aid and support. That it is so large serves Egypt’s rulers in that the military and all of its associated facilities and industries serve as a major source of employment, a critical factor in Egypt’s perennially poor economy. U.S. interests are also served by the relationship as the delivery of weapon systems lowers the unit cost for the same systems purchased by the U.S. armed forces as well as helping the bottom of American defense companies.

The high status of the military across Egyptian society is based to a large extent on its achievements in the wars against Israel especially the 1973 Yom Kippur War – treated as a great Egyptian victory – and on the perception of its ability to cope with Israel in case of another round of war.

The Egyptian military, especially now that it is calling the shots, wishes to ensure that any future Egyptian government will continue to support its efforts to be fully prepared for a possible future confrontation. Nervousness in Israel because of the recent events in Egypt would be another reason for Egypt’s military to push in that direction. In a large sense, a possible future war with Israel is the Egyptian military’s raison d’etre.

During the crisis of the past year, the Egyptian military proved to be essential in preventing total chaos, thereby providing the country and its economy an opportunity to recover. For military interventions such as this, however, it is not necessary for Egypt to maintain such an enormous military. A few hundred or even dozens of armored vehicles were sufficient to make the people in the streets and squares aware of the presence and of the might of the military. There was also no need to place main battle tanks in Cairo as any type of armored security vehicle would have done the job, particularly since the military declared that it had no intention of using such weapon systems against civilians. Thanks to that policy which was in contrast to the one employed by the hated internal security forces the military won over the crowd and furthered its reputation as the savior of Egypt.

Challenges from a Civilian Government

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has agreed that the Muslim Brotherhood would participate in the upcoming elections. This would be the first major internal test of the new Egypt. If a new civilian government, including Islamists such as the Brotherhood, comes to power it will have to confront the overall challenges the country faces beyond defense issues, primarily its massive economic problems.

The means to accommodate the needs of Egypt’s vast population are insufficient. Following the peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptian government should have designated a larger part of the national budget to addressing urgent social needs even at the expense of military demands. This did not happen.

In light of the present economic crisis, Egypt’s military leaders may have cause to worry about a future civilian government that may decree that Egypt’s internal needs necessitate a much less costly military, one that does not need thousands of expensive armored vehicles (for example, the army has more than 1,000 M1-A1 Abrams main battle tanks) and fleets of modern fighter jets (240 F-16C/D Fighting Falcon jets).

Along this line, the Egyptian military should be presented with budget cuts as well surrendering at least part of its privileges such as generous housing and pensions as well as “insider” financial benefits that accrue chiefly to senior officers.

The Egyptian military naturally wishes to maintain its prestige based on its capability to fight another war with Israel. Such an approach will require huge future budgets, and is in conflict with the more urgent problems of Egypt: how to survive its current economic crisis.

It would therefore seem there are two ways for the Egyptian military to preserve itself:

1. Prolonging its rule and control of the national budget.

2. Creating a dangerous situation with Israel that would stifle any attempt to diminish its present power.

The first measure can be detected by the Council’s attempt to postpone, to delay, and to impose stages for the election process. The second measure will probably manifest itself in the Sinai.

Ehud Eilam (Ph.D), JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a lecturer and researcher of Israel’s national security and IDF doctrine. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.