Is the Egyptian Army a Political Organization?

Emi Suzuki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University (Asian and African History)
Areas of Specialization: Modern Egyptian History and Modern Arabic History

In recent years, there has been an increase in protests against governments in regions around the world. My area of expertise is the Arab region, where the majority of countries have an authoritarian political system. The Arab region has been regarded as having few protest demonstrations. However, in 2011, there was a series of collapses of governments in Arab countries. These conditions were known as the Arab Spring (although "Arab Turmoil" would be a more appropriate name), and they led to fierce protests in several countries. Civil war broke out in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the conflicts continue even now. The armies of the respective countries held the key to these tumultuous conditions. Indeed, the subsequent fate of a country was determined by whether the army sided with the government or sided with the masses, which ultimately determined whether or not a civil war occurred. In my research, I use a historical perspective starting from early modern times to examine the relationship between official politics, which consists of systems such as congress and political parties, and unofficial (street corner) politics, which is typified by protests at which public opinion is expressed outside of a systemized framework. I am especially focused on the role of the Egyptian army, which possesses the greatest military force in the Arab region.

In Egypt, during a turmoil that lasted about two and a half years from 2011, the army responded to a large-scale protest by implementing a coup d'etat and ousting the president. At that time, the military appealed to demonstrators by saying that "we (the army) have heard the voice of the people," and it issued an ultimatum to the Egyptian government, warning them to "listen to the voice of the people." It is difficult for Japanese people to understand this turn of events, since civilian control is a prerequisite for the Japanese army. However, the concept of civilian control is completely unknown in Middle Eastern countries.

Now, considering the way in which the Egyptian army operates, how can it be positioned within Egyptian politics? I would like to postulate that the Egyptian army exists between official politics and unofficial politics; that is, its existence is not defined in the political system, but the army itself actually forms the system. I will examine these concepts below.

Official politics and unofficial politics

First, I would like to refer to the official politics such as congress. In Egypt, a parliament was established in 1866 under the Muhammad Ali dynasty, which came to rule over the area in the early 19th century. Election systems were also introduced. However, these were indirect election in which votes were cast by electors, and also income provisions were set in the requirements for running for office. As a result, only famous citizens who were wealthy landowners were elected as parliament members. Afterwards, they would occupy their seats for several generations based on their status as landowners. Such politicians are known as hereditary politicians in Japan. Even after Egypt became a republic in 1952, the parliament continued to be occupied by hereditary politicians. Ultimately, the members of parliament existed to endorse the policies of successive authoritarian governments.

When the public's anger and dissatisfaction with such politicians reached the boiling point, people went out to the streets and held large-scale protests; that is, they engaged in unofficial politics. The energy of protestors was tremendous and was able to bring down governments in some cases. In Egypt, there is a tendency to praise such expressions of public opinion on the streets. This is because the official politics represented by party politics and parliament has not functioned properly since the introduction of the modern political system in the 19th century.

The army as a supporter of nationalism

On the other hand, the Egyptian army has always oscillated between official politics and unofficial politics. The modern Egyptian army was established in the early 19th century, when Muhammad Ali from Albania took the position of Viceroy of Egypt in 1805. During the turmoil that occurred in Egypt after the departure of Napoleon, Muhammad Ali, who had risen up the ranks from the unofficial army deployed by the Ottoman Empire, had territorial ambitions for the Ottoman government. He embarked on a policy of wealth and military strength; for example, he welcomed French military advisors and modernized the Egyptian army. Modernization (westernization) had begun more than half a century earlier than in Japan, but the difference from Japan is that the modernization was mainly implemented by non-Egyptian people such as Turks.

Afterwards, successive rulers advanced the westernization policy by non-Egyptian people. However, the country eventually went into a state of collapse due to loose finance policy. In response, the debtor countries of Western Europe (mainly Britain and France) took control of Egyptian finances for the reason of collecting on their debt. Egyptian Colonel Ahmed Urabi reacted by espousing the slogan "Egypt for Egyptians" and obtaining cooperation from Egyptian parliament members who were landowners to issue political demands to the controlling Western countries. In the second half of the 19th century, the number of Egyptians with modern education increased, and there was growing dissatisfaction with the fact that their politics and economy were determined by foreigners or people with foreign roots. Urabi's actions took place against the backdrop of this dissatisfaction. However, when Urabi's demands escalated and developed into a military clash with Britain, landowners (upper class individuals who later became hereditary politicians) including the Speaker of the Parliament returned to the side of the British at the last minute due to fear of losing their vested interests. Ultimately, Urabi's army was defeated. This movement is said to be the first nationalist movement in the Arab region. In other words, in Egypt, the military is historically viewed as an organization that confronts foreign enemies in response to public dissatisfaction. In 1882, Egypt was occupied by the British military due to the defeat of Urabi. It was not until about 70 years later, in 1952, that the military would reappear on the political front.

Permeation into government bodies

In July 1952, the Free Officers Movement, a secret organization of young officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, carried out a coup d'etat and abolished the Muhammad Ali dynasty, which was a dynasty with foreign roots. The Movement then announced a land reform that would limit the land ownership of landowners, and suspend the activities of parliament and political parties. In this way, the army carried out a coup d'etat after official politics was completely paralyzed, including cozy relationships and corruption between politicians and businessmen, a widening wealth gap between rich and poor, and frequent protests. The Free Officers Movement then changed its name to the Revolutionary Command Council, proclaiming the establishment of a republic and becoming the center of government administration. Then, a large number of military personnel were retired and assigned to executive positions at each ministry and government agency, and to important positions of local administration. This resulted in the completion of the current ruling system in which former military personnel, now acting as civilians, receive the intention of the army or engage in politics in favor of them. And it is the security threat posed by Israel that preserved this semi-wartime system for a long time. Thus, the army, which has no political authority, was allowed to take charge of politics.

Egyptian army has sometimes appeared on the political front as saviors; however, hundreds of supporters of the abolished government were killed during the turmoil after the 2013 coup. After that, a man who was a former subcontractor of military construction distributed a video on the Internet accusing the Egyptian military of corruption. The website on which the video was posted was viewed heavily. It is now widely known that the Egyptian army is not an organization that never points a gun at its own citizens, and that it is not immune to corruption. However, the army has penetrated to furthest reaches of Egypt's governing bodies and is too huge to be judged comprehensively. In the future, I would like to keep an eye on whether there are any changes in how Egyptian people view their military.

Emi Suzuki/Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University (Asian and African History)
Areas of Specialization: Modern Egyptian History and Modern Arabic History

Emi Suzuki was born in Shizuoka Prefecture. She graduated from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 1996.
In 2000, she completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo.
In 2003, she completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo. She holds a PhD from the University of Tokyo.
She served as Associate Professor in the Waseda University Organization for Islamic Area Studies, First Secretary at the Embassy of Japan in the Syrian Arab Republic, and Associate Professor in Fukuoka Women’s University before assuming her current position in 2022.

Her area of expertise is modern Egyptian political history. In particular, she conducts research on the relationship between hereditary politicians and government administrations from the 19th century. Her main written works include Egyptian Revolution (Chuko-shinsho, 2013) and more.