Last taboo

You will find below the first post by Simon Kitchen, a new occasional contributor to arabist.net. Simon comes from an economic and risk analysis background, a perspective that I am sure will enrich the debate. [issandr]



In all the current discussion of political reform in the Middle East, and a possible dynastic succession in Egypt, the role of the military goes all but unremarked. Yet the Egypt military establishment continues to play a vital economic (perhaps a third of GDP is under military supervision or influence) and political role, and arguably has a veto over political reform and the succession of Gamal Mubarak as the next president of Egypt.

Discussions over the candidacy of Saad ed-din Ibrahim and Nawal al-Saadawi, and possibility of more open elections in Egypt in 2004 are interesting, but they also function as a smokescreen, occupying the press and civil society while real power lies outside the NDP and the cabinet. During June 2004, Egypt was nominally governed by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid for nearly three weeks while President Mubarak recovered from surgery in Germany. But Ebeid was a lame duck, his pending resignation having been announced the week before. So who was in charge? The answer, in all likelihood, was Mubarak’s lieutenants in the military and intelligence establishment.

Rami Khouri of the Daily Star raises the problem of the military’s role in Middle Eastern politics in an op-ed in the Daily Star. He mentions a recent report from the Brookings Institution, a centrist (at least by US standards) think tank, that examines the military establishments of Egypt, Pakistan and Syria, and their roles in influencing politics from behind the scenes. The report describes the ubiquitous of former and serving military and intelligence personnel at many levels of civilian life, and argues that civilian control over the military must be reestablished.

The lewa (general) is an over-familiar sight in the Egyptian popular imagination: generals serve as the governors of Egyptian provinces, are in charge of gathering statistics, and are invoked in legal disputes as sources of wasta (political influence). Their sons are among Egypt’s most influential businessmen, something they have in common with their peers in Syria and Algeria.

Algeria, oddly, is absent from the Brookings Institution’s report, even though the Algerian military establishment, the pouvoir, has also laid its deadening hand on political and economic reform. (Also absent, perhaps more understandably, is Israel, which has generally separated civilian and military authority. However, the lines seem to be blurring in Israel, with Shaul Mofaz quickly moving from Chief of Staff to Defence Minister in 2002. Moreover, current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon considered a less democratic route to power, a military coup, in 1967.)

Western governments regard the military in Egypt – as in Algeria and Turkey - as a safe pair of hands, a bulwark against potentially disruptive Islamist and popular movements. The US state department sees the relationship with the Egyptian military as the cornerstone of the US-Egypt relationship; the Egyptian military sees the US as its most important ally. But the military is deeply conservative, and its attitudes are detrimental to Egypt’s political development: it’s ‘no beards’ rule has barred the Muslim Brotherhood from reasonable political participation since the 1970s, and has given the Brotherhood the easy legitimacy of an illegal opposition group.

The Egyptian military plays its cards close to its chest, and it is difficult to gauge this corporate group’s attitudes to contemporary issues such as reform and the succession. I have heard that the military is now more positive about Gamal Mubarak’s succession than it was 18 months ago, having been persuaded that Gamal has intelligent associates and that his succession will be accepted by Washington. But the Brookings report is not the first to have mentioned Omar Suleiman, director of General Intelligence, as an alternative successor. Even if Gamal does succeed, he will likely be closely supervised by his father’s military peers and associates.