I have been hearing a lot of people speculate over the last few hours about the possibility of a military “take-over” in Egypt. These commentators miss a key point: the military already runs Egypt, and has done so since 1952 when the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the country’s monarchy.
Under Nasser and Sadat (1952–1981) this was obvious. Army officers were the face of Nasser’s regime. This changed a bit under Sadat (particularly in the later years of his rule), but mainly in a cosmetic way. There might be more men in suits representing the country and running its ministries than had been the case under Nasser, but everyone understood that senior civilians took these leading roles only because the military found it convenient to let them do so.
Sadat himself (one of the original Free Officers) appeared publicly as a military man or a civilian according to whatever he thought the occasion required. When he was was assassinated on 6 October 1981 he was wearing his Field Marshall’s uniform as he reviewed a military parade. As the shots were fired his vice president – Hosni Mubarak – stood a few steps away wearing his own Air Vice Marshall’s uniform (i.e. head of the Air Force).
Mubarak was lightly wounded in that attack and formally became president a week later. It is to Mubarak’s credit that he has not been seen in uniform since that day on the reviewing stand, but the point is that he did not have to be. Everyone in the military knows that Mubarak is one of them.
Under Mubarak the military has retreated to the background. Civilians have long occupied all cabinet positions except the defense ministry. Technocrats run places like the electricity ministry while the foreign ministry and the internal security services are self-perpetuating bureaucracies drawn from particular strata of society (the well-educated middle class in the latter case, the old-money elite in the former).
But all of this takes place at the military’s sufferance. The military allows Mubarak to run things this way partly because they rightly see him as one of their own – and, thus, as someone who will keep the military’s interests foremost in his mind – and partly because their experience under Nasser and Sadat led Egypt’s soldiers to conclude that giving civilians nominal power within a system where they set the parameters was a far more efficient way to run things.
As a result, Egypt is not a military dictatorship in the sense that, say, Burma is today or that many Latin American countries were in the 1970s. But make no mistake, from behind the scenes it is run by its generals. They have trusted Mubarak and supported him for three decades because he is one of them. Should they decide to move him aside that will constitute an internal reshuffling, not a coup.