Arabist in NYT on Egypt's military

Thanassis Cambanis, who has been temporarily covering Egypt for the NYT (it's in-between correspondents in Cairo at the moment), has a story on the Egyptian military's role in the whole Mubarak succession business in which your truly is quoted, as well as many Egyptian analysts and retired military officers.

Military officials have expressed reservations in interviews and in the Egyptian news media about Gamal Mubarak, one of the most frequently mentioned potential successors of the president. Retired officers and other analysts said the military would not support his candidacy without ironclad guarantees that it would retain its pre-eminent position in the nation’s affairs. Retired officers circulated an open letter criticizing Gamal Mubarak’s candidacy last month, and several retired Egyptian officers said in interviews that they were skeptical of hereditary succession.

The military has much to lose in the transition, these officers and analysts say. Over the years, one-man rule eviscerated Egypt’s civilian institutions, creating a vacuum at the highest levels of government that the military willingly filled. “There aren’t any civilian institutions to fall back on,” said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about the Egyptian military. “It’s an open question how much power the military has, and they might not even know themselves.”

It's as good an occasion as any to discuss the Egyptian military and the possibility of an intervention against Gamal Mubarak's succession, which many in the Egyptian opposition have fervently hoped for. This situation, in a sense, is ideal for the military, confirming its central role and placing senior military officers — since we are probably talking about that rather than the army as a corporate entity — of winning either way: they will be wooed by Gamal (or any other successor) to support him and, if they decide not to, would easily garner popular support for their own candidate. Should they decide to support Gamal Mubarak, they need do nothing but sit back and allow the process concocted for his "legitimate" election to take place. If they decide against it, it will be most likely a decision taken behind the scenes rather than publicly, with the selection of the candidate taking place in collusion with elements of the ruling party rather than, as some have said, by tanks descending into the streets. A soft coup, if you will, if only because the regime as a whole in Egypt has an interest in preserving the myth of constitutional legitimacy — they would bend the rules, rather than break them altogether.

Unfortunately, the two options have long seemed the only choice in Egypt (as for the military ushering in a transition to democracy, the very notion is ridiculous, since the military has never been pro-democracy in the past). A third alternative, for now still distant, would be for a political disturbance such as a popular uprising or massive demonstrations to force a military intervention. This could force the regime to adapt to a new situation, making the possibility of a (slow, uncertain) transition more likely, since there would be a force to held accountable to: the public. This is what the likes of Mohamed ElBaradei and Tareq al-Bishri have called for, either as a huge march for real reform or as a campaign of civil disobedience. It still seems distant, especially in the absence of a united opposition (just look at their divisions on the subject of electoral boycotts) and a social elite that, a few figures aside, has decidedly lacked courage and leadership. 

As such, the question of succession is partly about securing strong negotiating positions for elements of the regime, from the security services to the military to political apparatchiks and businessmen. The battle may be less about who's president than what the influence of institutions, clientelist networks and individuals would be in the coming set-up. Such battles play out very slowly, as we have seen in other leadership successions in the Arab world. When Bashar al-Assad came in, many thought him weak. But today he is seen as strong and a new ruling elite has formed, getting rid of some old figures. In Morocco, the immediate victim of King Muhammad VI's ascension to the throne was Interior Minister Driss Basri and some of his acolytes, but the military and gendarmerie largely were untouched, while an older generation of technocrats was untouched. Autocracies — like pure dictatorships, like Saddam Hussein's Iraq — are complex, living systems composed of moving elements. Sometimes these are institutions, but more often they are individuals. It might be individual ambitions that will be the most interesting thing to watch — unfortunately, when it comes to Arab militaries, that's generally a very difficult thing to do.