The Egyptian military and politics – and Saudi ambitions

Brian M Downing

The Egyptian generals stand to come out of the present crisis more powerful than before, if they play it right. The old regime – Mubarak’s regime – comprised family cliques, business oligarchs, and the army elite. Two years ago, the army objected to Mubarak’s son as president-in-waiting and cleverly posed as the champion of the people when the Arab Spring swept across Egypt. All the while it sought to keep the old regime in power. The Mubaraks are out and the army can now boost its importance in the old regime. Saudi Arabia may also stand to gain.

However, the generals should know that extended periods in power lead to factions and rivalries within the upper officer corps. The solidarity the generals prided themselves on breaks down as generals have to deal with political realities they’d never trained for and generals become sympathetic to competing civilian interest groups. This was the case in many Latin American countries over the last half century and it is one of the reasons that the region’s militaries have stepped back from politics to the extent they have.

The Egyptian military has a large number of conscripts. This almost certainly means that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi networks have a considerable presence in the army. The MB has almost certainly tried to gauge its popularity in the army. The rank and file’s reliability in coming months bears watching, especially if there are more mass shootings. The generals, however, will likely try to avoid using regular troops for repression and rely instead on its Republican Guard unit.  

Conscription also means there are hundreds of thousands of Egyptian civilians who have completed their military service and who retain their knowledge of weapons and tactics. When combined with the MB’s organizational structure, which has survived eighty years of intermittent repression, this could pose a serious longterm problem for the army and whatever government they help form. 

The Obama administration’s reaction to events of the last few weeks is unclear. The US has little influence in any of the political parties. Its influence in the religious parties such as the MB and al Nour is nonexistent. The US does, however, give the Egyptian military approximately $1.3 billion a year and future payments are in doubt as the US tries to define just what a military coup is and what the impact of a cutoff might be. 

The Saudis and other Sunni principalities are of course opposed to democracy in the region. From Riyadh’s view, democracy violates religious structures and threatens the family rule that Abdul Aziz set up in the 1920s. Saudi Arabia will try to steer Egypt (and other countries in the region as well) away from democracy and back toward authoritarian rule. This will make them more attuned to Saudi foreign policy regarding Iran and the Shia “heretics.” Should the US withhold its payments to the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia would likely be pleased to become the army’s main foreign benefactor.

The Saudis have important ties to the various Salafi groups inside Egypt. Salafi mullahs often studied in Saudi Arabia and see Wahhabism as a key ideological wellspring. Salafi parties received generous donations in the run-up to the elections and though the sources are uncertain, Saudi Arabia is likely to have been quite generous.

One of the key Salafi parties, al Nour, was originally in the generals’ transitional front, but it withdrew. It will be interesting to see if al Nour returns. If it does, it may be at the bidding of the House of Saud. An army in its pay and a zealous popular movement with ideological affinities to Wahhabism could form a military-theocratic state that could present a legitimate front to a large portion of the public, though probably not a majority. Such a state would suit Riyadh well.

Copyright 2013