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Will Egypt’s Army Be a Change Agent or Maintain Status Quo?

February 8, 2011 at 5:46 PM EDT
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As the Egyptian government continues negotiations with opposition leaders, the army remains the trump card in the transition of political power. Gwen Ifill speaks with former Pentagon official Matthew Axelrod and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland about the army's evolving role in Egypt's unrest and its future.

GWEN IFILL: And we come back to Egypt. The country’s future may depend on what role the Egyptian military plays in the political world order.

At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Gates had only praise for his Egyptian counterparts.

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode. And they have acted with great restraint. And — and, frankly, they have done everything that — that we have indicated we would hope that they would do.

GWEN IFILL: But is the military in a position to do what protesters are hoping for?

For that, we turn to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland, and Matthew Axelrod, who served as North Africa and Egypt director at the Pentagon from 2005 to 2007.

Welcome to you both.

We — we heard what Vice President Suleiman said this afternoon about not being able to put up with continued protests. We know that he is close to the military. So, what connection — what connection is there here between the military in Egypt and the outcome everyone seems to be hoping for?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University Of Maryland: Well, first of all, the military really is the anchor of this regime. It’s always been that way since 1952, with the overthrow of the monarchy, but it’s even become more so in the past two weeks.

Mr. Suleiman himself comes out of the military. He’s considered one of them. And the defense minister has been the defense minister and one of the most influential men in Egypt for the past 20 years, just been promoted to deputy prime minister — and the prime minister who was appointed also from the military. The president himself is out of the military.

So, this is the anchor of the regime. They’re protecting their interests. So people see them as the regime vs. the military. The military is part and parcel of this regime. Obviously, they may feel differently about the person of the president if they want to protect the institution.

Now, I think the institution of the military is respected in Egypt, for a variety of reasons. And they have been since 1952, with really a brief period in which they were the butt of jokes in Egypt between the defeat in 1967 and then the high — highly credible performance in the ’73 war.

But, in general, they’re respected. They don’t want to lose that. In the short term, clearly, they play on that, because when the security services were playing the bad guys, in essence, they were confronting the demonstrators — we now know, in fact, they were behind some of the thugs — and the military inserted itself, seemed to stop the attacks and play on the loyalty of the public.

But it’s coming a point where the choice is going to be between remaining loyal to the institutions that they now have and alienating the public. They know in the — in the future, they want to be part of any system in Egypt. And they don’t want to go too far in alienating the public.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Axelrod, how much can the military — if it is indeed the anchor of the system, as Professor Telhami says, how much can they be the agents of change at a time when we see that none of the discontent is fading?

MATTHEW AXELROD, former Pentagon official: I actually don’t think that the Egyptian military will be the primary agent of change in Egypt.

I think that it’s going to have to be the Egyptian people and the people in Tahrir. And the Egyptian military will be affected by that. And I agree with Dr. Telhami that they have interests that they are interested in protecting.

But when we’re thinking about who will be the primary agents of change and who the actors are going to be, I think it’s primarily going to be the Egyptian people and whether or not they continue to rally as they have, and do so defiantly. That will really be the key factor.

And what’s happening right now…

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask — go ahead.


GWEN IFILL: Go ahead. Go ahead.

MATTHEW AXELROD: I think what’s happening right now is, the regime is bringing out incremental concessions, and they’re trying to see whether or not these incremental concessions will be enough.

And, so far, they haven’t been. So it’s a back-and-forth between the protesters and the regime.

GWEN IFILL: How much — I will ask you this, and then I would like to ask Professor Telhami as well.

How intertwined is the political structure in Egypt, whether it’s in the person of Mubarak or anyone else, with the military structure? Are they inseparable?

First to you, Mr. Axelrod.

MATTHEW AXELROD: I think that they are inseparable behind the scenes.

What’s interesting is, Dr. Telhami said that the Egyptian military maintains a great deal of credibility and respect. This is precisely because they are not tied up with the daily repressive apparatus of the Mubarak regime and have not been for some time.

They had been depoliticized by first President Sadat and then President Mubarak. Because of that, they actually are very important political actors in times of crises, such as right now. But mainly they play a behind-the-scenes role. And for the first time, that role is coming to the fore, and not necessarily with the uniformed military, but also the expanded military community of retired officers.

And that is who we see right now in the leadership of the current Mubarak presidency.

GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with that, Professor?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I agree up to a point.

I mean, there’s — clearly, with the president, there’s very little separation. I mean, let’s put it this way. In the past several years, before even this crisis, if the president can have an important strategic meeting in the morning, it’s going to be with the defense minister, and then — with then Omar Suleiman, who was then the head of intelligence, now the vice president.

Those were the two most important people with whom the president met on a regular basis. So they’re inseparable from the president. Now, in society, he’s right about they’re not being particularly visible in the same way, like the businesspeople who are very tied into the regime and the National Democratic Party. And, in that sense, they have separation.

You see them also in some of instances taking a position against some businesspeople who are pushing the business to the system, let’s say to build a little port in the Mediterranean or marina, that they might oppose it for — for strategic security reasons. And they were really one of the only institutions in Egypt that could stand up to them.

So, in that sense, they did have — they did differentiate themselves from — from the business elites and from the bureaucracies.

GWEN IFILL: Well, differentiate — differentiate for us the difference between the police and the military, because what we saw in the beginning, last week, in Tahrir Square, it seemed as if people were welcoming the army. They were happy to see them. They were unhappy at the police.

And that’s what we heard the Google executive saying as well. Is there a distinction to be drawn?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: A huge distinction.

In part, you know, when we think of the security service, we think of the police as people who are the traffic cops and the — you know, people who solve crimes. Egypt has that. But, in the 1990s, Egypt established a security force that was really sort of oriented toward internal security.

It recruited a lot of people, mostly poor, not very well paid, hundreds of thousands of them to play a role of maintaining security inside. Now, this happened in part in response to the president’s attempted assassination in 1995 that nearly succeeded.

But there were, to be fair, a lot of attacks by militant Islamist groups that were in Egypt that were threatening the state, attacking the state, attacking tourism. And there was a public sentiment actually that wanted to stop them, and the government played into that a little bit.

So, they have never had the respect of the public. They seemed to be part of the repression that was prevalent, whereas, the military — you know, it’s the public who serve in the military. You have got about a half-million. They fought wars. You know, the last war they fought, ’73, was seen to have been successful. Mubarak himself emerged as a war hero from that war.

So people have a different attitude toward the military institution.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Axelrod, sort out for us what Secretary Gates was doing today. He sounded almost conciliatory in praising the Egyptian military. Is that because the — the U.S. military is so tightly tied with them, or because, frankly, that’s just what it is; they can’t — they have no leverage without the Egyptian military; the U.S. has no leverage, that is?

MATTHEW AXELROD: That’s right.

So, I think it’s a little bit of both. The United States has been a close ally and a close — has a close working relationship with Egypt since the Camp David peace accords. And I think that the administration has a sense that they have limited leverage when it comes to the fundamental questions that the military is dealing with right now.

So, on the edges, they have a degree of influence. And I think we saw that with Vice President Biden calling on the immediate end to the emergency law. That would be a significant move, but it’s not fundamental to whether or not the regime continues.

These types of fundamental questions, the United States recognizes that it has very little leverage. What we do have is a relationship. And we provide the Egyptian military with $1.3 billion in U.S. aid, which is delivered in kind.

But compare that to the future of the military’s interests when it comes to economic interests inside Egypt and also their tightness with the regime, and it’s paltry in comparison. So, for that reason, I think that the United States does have little leverage when it comes to fundamental issues in the future.


Matthew Axelrod, Shibley Telhami, thank you both very much.


MATTHEW AXELROD: Thank you very much.