What Is the Role of the Military in Egypt’s Transition?

BY Larisa Epatko  February 7, 2011 at 3:00 PM EST


Protesters stand on army tanks in Tahrir Square on Jan. 29. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The Egyptian military was the subject of international attention during the massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And now as the country looks to transition to a new government, people are closely watching how its role might change.

At the beginning of the anti-government demonstrations in late January, protesters clashed with riot police, who were quickly replaced by the army, which had a much more stabilizing effect, said Graeme Bannerman, a scholar with the Middle East Institute.

The police “disappeared, because they were a lightening rod for public discontent,” whereas the army’s involvement set a different tone, said Bannerman. “They are strongly committed to their country and they feel that many of the problems that the demonstrators have raised, the military members themselves have felt.”

The military first and foremost sees itself as the upholder of Egypt’s sovereignty and national security, but it also has a sizable role in the Egyptian economy — and gets contracts from the state — so it has an interest in maintaining those assets and making sure the country remains stable, said Daniel Brumberg, senior adviser in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention.

But the military is one part of Egypt’s security apparatus, which also includes the police and secret police, he said. “So there’s a kind of division of labor that the military has used to both befriend the youth and at the same time corral them, while the security apparatus seems to be pursuing a campaign to intimidate critics of the regime, as well as foreign journalists.

“Whether this division of labor is spontaneous, whether it’s just a fact on the ground, or whether this is part of a more elaborate plan of the regime is hard to know,” he added.

The military, the exact size of which is kept under wraps in Egypt, has a close relationship with the ruling political apparatus. And presidents in Egypt’s recent history, including Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak, along with newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman, have had military roots.

So when the protests erupted, the military had to decide between backing President Mubarak or the demonstrators, and according to Brumberg, chose both.

“The military is trying to be both with the protesters and at the same time with the state and have it both ways by supporting a very slow process of transition that will allow the president to remain in power at least for some time while the regime negotiates a deal with the opposition that will protect its basic interests,” he said.

Now as Egypt transitions to a post-Mubarak government, the role of the military is changing.

“It finds itself trying to arbitrate between various players — the leaders of the ancient regime — the old regime, the council of wise advisers, who are 40- and 50-something elites, and the young groups,” said Brumberg.

In addition to this role of arbitrator, if popular elections are held the military might be called upon by nascent political parties, particularly more secular-oriented parties, to provide some balance to the capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood to mobilize, he said.

Overall, the military’s role has expanded since the protests, as it navigates among the groups involved, but the final shape it will take is unknown at this point, he added.

On Monday’s NewsHour, we’ll have a report from Cairo on how Egyptians feel about the current upheaval. Find more coverage of Egypt news and follow us on Twitter.