Egypt’s new, democratically elected officials are struggling with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for control of the country’s post-Mubarak future. The SCAF, which has ruled over Egypt since early 2011, is attempting to enshrine its custodianship of the country in the constitution. The civilian authorities are trying to wrest control from a military institution that has been the mainstay of authoritarian power for decades, and that now seeks to remain above the law. No less than the fate of Egypt’s transition is at stake.
After 1991, the Egyptian Armed Forces expanded their thorough penetration of almost every sphere of Hosni Mubarak’s crony patronage system. The senior officer corps was co-opted by the promise of appointment upon retirement to leading posts in government ministries, agencies, and state-owned companies, offering them supplementary salaries and lucrative opportunities for extra income generation and asset accumulation in return for loyalty to the president. This officers’ republic served as a primary instrument of presidential power, and even after Mubarak’s ouster retains its pervasive political reach, permeating both the state apparatus and the economy—not just at the commanding heights but at all levels.
To prevent overt military custodianship, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, and Egypt’s political parties must reach a firm consensus on limiting the exceptional powers the SCAF seeks to embed in the new constitution. Asserting effective civilian oversight over the detail of the defense budget and any other military funding streams is also key.
Yet, the civilian leaders must tread carefully. The more progress they make, the harder the officers’ republic will fight to hold on to its power, potentially using its extensive networks throughout the state apparatus to obstruct government policies and reforms, impede public service delivery, and undermine the nascent democratic order. Egypt’s second republic will only come to life when the officers’ republic ceases to exist.
The Long Arm of the Officers’ Republic
The formal handover of power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, on June 30, 2012, marked the end of a tumultuous phase in Egypt’s transition and the start of another that promises to be considerably longer and even more complex. In the immediate future, the elected president will have to deal with a SCAF that openly wields legislative power and seeks to control the drafting of the new constitution. In the longer run, democratically elected officials will confront the “officers’ republic,” the self-perpetuating military networks that permeate virtually all branches and levels of state administration and of the state-owned sectors of the economy. Unless the officers’ republic is dismantled, it will use its extensive political reach and its control over key bureaucratic and economic enclaves to block the exercise of power by Morsi or any president after him and to subvert any future government of which it disapproves.
Today, the officers’ republic is at its most pervasive. Senior officers have access to a wide array of government posts after retirement, subsidized services and goods, the command of significant resources and opportunities within the civilian economy, and elevated social status. The officers’ republic additionally exercises exclusive control over the defense budget, U.S. military assistance, and military-owned businesses. Moreover, it is underpinned by a deep sense of institutional and personal entitlement. Rolling it back will be a delicate, protracted process that will take many years.
For its part, the SCAF has increasingly explicitly articulated the interests it is determined to defend, drawing clear lines in the sand and issuing unprecedentedly blunt warnings in response to perceived challenges to the exceptional status it claims. The signs are worrying. The SCAF is attempting to impose provisions in Egypt’s new constitution that grant it permanent military custodianship. If it succeeds, the ability of future civilian authorities to devise and implement policies autonomously to confront the massive economic and social challenges facing Egypt will be severely constrained. Under such circumstances, any democratically elected government will be chronically unstable.