Military rule in Egypt
Egypt was under the military yoke from July 1952 to February 2011
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
In Egypt, Till very recent President Hosni Mubarak was flying high and leading an exhilarating life with no worries. Having ruled with full authority for 30 years and having amassed a fortune of over $40 billion and owning posh mansions in several western countries and counting himself among the richest men of the world, he was now looking forward to the coming elections in September 2011 in which he was all set to get his son Gamal elected and succeed him so that he could lead a quiet and comfortable retired life. There was no external threat to Egypt and internally no political party posed any challenge. Egypt enjoyed best of relations with the US, western world and Israel and after the death of Sadam Hussein and liquidation of Baathist Party, the Arab world by and large had reconciled with Egypt’s pro-US and pro-Israeli policies. Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies favored tough stance of Hosni against religious extremists since such elements posed a threat to their monarchies as well. Under such benign environments, none among the ruling regime in Cairo could contemplate an uprising of such a magnitude as has occurred.
Egypt remained under British backed monarchy from 1936 till mid 1952. Col Gamal Abdel Nasser led free officers’ coup in July 1952 against moribund and corrupt rule of fun loving King Farouq and established Revolutionary Command Council. After one year he renamed Egypt as a Republic and installed Naguib as president and himself as prime minister but a little later took over as president and formulated a new constitution. He emerged as a strong and poplar nationalist leader of Egypt in particular and Arab world in general because of his pan-Arab ideas. Merger of Syria with Egypt was part of the scheme. He subsumed Egyptian nationalism and pan-Islamism into an overall Pan-Arabism orientation. His popularity got a fillip after he nationalized Suez Canal which antagonized Britain and France. It led to invasion of Sinai in November 1956 by Israeli forces in which British-French troops also took part. Egypt managed to carry the day when British and French forces had to withdraw under international pressure.
After the war, Nasser aligned Egypt with Soviet Union. His difficulties in acquiring US weaponry were instrumental in deciding to seek Soviet arms for Egyptian armed forces. In 1962 Nasser supplemented Pan-Arabism with a secular socialist component. He resigned after the 1967 debacle but took back his resignation on popular demand of Egyptians. His death in 1970 was widely mourned by the people of Egypt. He is still remembered with fondness since Egypt has not seen another charismatic leader of his caliber. Nasserites are still active in Egypt.
Nasser was succeeded by his Vice President Air Marshal Anwar al-Sadat who soon after taking over started to gravitate towards Washington. In all probability he had already been cultivated by the Americans. He ordered expulsion of Russian military advisers and technicians in July 1972 to reduce Russian influence. In 1976 he abrogated Egypt-Soviet Treaty of friendship & Cooperation.
It was during his rule that Egyptian forces broke the myth of invincibility of Bar-Lev Line built by Israelis all along the Suez Canal in Sinai soon after six-day 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which Arab armies were routed and enabled Israel to capture whole of Sinai including Gaza, Golan Heights and West Bank from Egypt, Syria and Jordan respectively.
The Bar-Lev Line was successfully breached on 6 October 1973 and several bridgeheads established across the Suez Canal which could not be eliminated by Israeli forces. This success was partially offset by Aerial Sharon’s pincer which exploited the gap between 2nd and 3rd Egyptian Armies in ‘Bitter Lakes’ area near Ismailia city and after crossing the Suez Canal, the pincer moved southwards but was contained and a stalemate occurred. It was in that critical timeframe that the Yom Kippur war ended as a consequence to US brokered ceasefire. Egypt’s 2nd Army’s 8-10 km deep bridgehead east of Suez Canal and Sharon’s toehold west of canal were of no threat to either side. For the Egyptians, it was an astounding victory and a vindication of their humiliating defeat in 1967 encounter. It redeemed the lost dignity and honor of the Army.
Henry Kissinger used all his diplomatic skills to keep the tenuous ceasefire intact and to remove antagonism between two arch rivals. His almost four-year efforts bore fruits and resulted in both sides agreeing to come to terms. Sadat on the advice of Washington undertook a historical visit to Tel Aviv in November 1977. Since he was the first Arab leader to visit Israel, he was eulogized by the Jewish and western press but widely censored by the Arab world. Camp David agreement was signed by Jimmy Carter, Sadat and Menachem Begin in September 1978 and Egypt-Israeli peace agreement inked on 26 March 1979.
Surprisingly, Sadat showed little interest in occupied lands of Syria and Jordan and his commitment to Palestinian cause was perfunctory. His sole interest during the negotiations was to recover Sinai. Had he succeeded in getting Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem vacated from Israeli control and a road map for settlement of Palestinian dispute, it would have further enhanced his prestige and Egypt’s standing in Arab world.
Egypt’s 1973 victory was turned into a political defeat when Egypt was removed from the camp of resisting states to Israeli occupation of Arab lands to the camp of appeasement. This shift in balance of power in the region and vacuum created by absence of Egypt, allowed Israel to eliminate resistance one by one starting with Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon again and Iraq again and now current rhetoric indicate that Iran and Syria are next.
Egypt lost respect of the Arab countries that had regarded Egypt as an intellectual and cultural leader. This change in perceptions encouraged Iraq under ambitious leader Saddam to claim leadership role of Arab world and led to serious differences between Egypt and Iraq. Taking advantage of the Egypt-Iraq cold war and Iraqi forces involvement in war with Iran, Israeli air force destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirek in June 1981.
Egypt’s change of heart encouraged several Arab states to restore diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Arab League became a dead horse since Egypt torpedoed any reprisal action like economic war or cutting off diplomatic ties with Israel or raising the issue of settlements in occupied lands in the UN. Arab countries paying only lip service to the Palestinian dispute added to the disillusionment and woes of Palestinians.
Within Egypt, Sadat’s ties with USA and Israel saw intensification of opposition to his domestic and foreign policies. He was viewed as a betrayer of Arab cause. His economic liberalization and encouragement of private sector benefited the upper and upper middle class seculars, but weakening of public sector had a crippling effect on lower and middle classes. It widened the gulf between the rich and the poor and also fueled corruption among the bureaucrats. The deprived class languished under escalating prices of food items.
Muslim-Coptic sectarian clashes in June 1981 and their persecution by the state antagonized the two communities. Arrest of 1500 political opponents in September was roundly criticized at home and abroad. Consequent to welling up of hatred against Sadat, he was killed by grenade tossing and gun firing Lt Khalid al Islamboli and three soldiers on 6 October 1981 when he was reviewing the annual military parade in Cairo. 28 senior officers including air vice marshal Hosni Mubarak sitting on the dais received injuries. A state of emergency was declared which has not been lifted to this day.
His successor Hosni Mubarak who had served as air force chief and his Vice President for six years brought no change in his predecessor’s policies. He pursued US policies faithfully and stuck to peace treaty with Israel which helped him in remaining in good books of both. He continued with the witch hunt of the Islamists. Worst kind of human rights abuses were committed against activists of religious parties forcing many to flee. He also colluded with Israel when latter’s forces invaded Gaza in December-January 2009 and helped Israel in affecting an economic blockade against Gazans by blocking Rafah crossing in Sinai.
Already outraged by Hosni’s pro-American and pro-Israeli policies and suffering under the weight of his oppressive policies, common people in Egypt were primed for explosion. The spark was provided by events in Tunisia where the people succeeded in ousting the dictator on 14 January. Its ripple effects were felt in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Morocco as well.
In Egypt, the people came on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez in large numbers on 25 January and thereon made it into a daily routine. 350,000 strong Central Security Force (CSF) and National Police after vainly battling with the protestors gave up and breathed a sigh of relief when Hosni ordered the Army to take over and impose curfew on 28 January. Taking advantage of the turmoil and police helplessness, 13000 prisoners made their escape good.
470,000 strong Army, with equal number of reservists under Lt Gen Sami Hafez Annan, which had struck roots in national affairs in 1952 and is popular among the masses took over security duties in Cairo and Alexandria but put up a neutral and friendly face much to the chagrin of beleaguered Hosni. Latter refused to vacate his seat saying that he would stay in power till next presidential election scheduled in September to prevent chaos.
He however appointed ailing Intelligence Chief Lt Gen Omar Suleiman as his Vice President, dissolved the cabinet and formed a fresh cabinet under new Prime Minister Air Marshal Ahmad Shafiq who was performing as minister of civil aviation. The aging president promised that neither he nor his son would participate in next elections and also grudgingly agreed to carryout constitutional and political reforms. He also vacated his post of chairman National Democratic Party.
These measures however failed to placate the people and they stuck to their demand of immediate ouster of Hosni. The people hate the rulers, CSF and the police under the interior ministry but are friendly towards the Army. The protesters constantly wooed the soldiers to their side. About 300 people died and hundreds injured but protests continued despite curfew. They were fed up of insensitivity of their rulers, rampant corruption, large scale unemployment and political oppression whenever they asked for reforms.
Although the emotions of Egyptians were very high and their resolve to make the ‘Nile Revolution’ a success was strong, but they are without a leader. Muhammad ElBaradei doesn’t fit the bill since he is Mr. nobody in Egypt’s politics and is seen as America’s man purposely sent to deceive the people. The CNN and BBC commentators exposed their inner desire by opining that he could be a good replacement of Hosni. Another aspirant Amr Mussa heading Arab League is also not an ideal choice. Muslim Brotherhood kept a low profile because it didn’t want the uprising to be dubbed as an Islamic revolution. Although it has 88 seats in the legislature, it doesn’t have a charismatic leader to turn the tide in its favor.
The uprising triggered by the youth on 25th January took a dangerous turn on 04th February when one million people assembled at Tahrir Square (Independence Square) in Central Cairo and refused to vacate the premises till ouster of the despot. When the Army refused to fire on the crowds, intelligence goons, ruffians and Salafi movement members tried to break up the assembly by using brute force but failed. Hosni became a sitting duck after the US and the west started to withdraw their support to him and the Army adopted an affable posture. The brewing storm climaxed on 11th when the people besieged the presidential palace and left embattled Hosni with no choice but to resign and flee to his palace in Sharm el Sheikh. Like Ayub Khan, instead of handing over the reigns to the Speaker, he preferred to hand over the reigns to Supreme Council of Armed Forces.
The power has slipped into the hands of Vice President Lt Gen Omar, Defence Minister Field Marshal M. Hussein Tantawi and Army Chief Lt Gen Annan. With no external threat, the Army has got too addicted to benefits of peace with Israel and is enjoying the fruits of US largesse for long. It is heavily involved in businesses, road building, construction works and running bakeries and laundries. Aging senior officers are holding key appointments in civil organizations and in government departments. Over 37 years of peace has dulled the warrior spirit among the officer cadre. Status quo is the most desirable option for the senior leadership of the Army.
The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies prefer status quo with some cosmetic reforms but the people do not want change of faces but a real change. They hate Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic laws and desire continuation of the present system under new faces. It is said that the Army while putting up a friendly face is keeping its options open. The constitution has been suspended and parliament dissolved on 13th, but the Army Command has so far not given any timeframe for polls and has made it clear that till completion of transition to democracy it will remain committed to international treaties including Camp David accord. Tahrir Square has still not been completely vacated by protesters and die hard among them say they will not depart till lifting of state of emergency, release of political prisoners, fair elections and swift handover of power to the civilians. Army’s role is considered critical for the future of Egypt. The wind of change has started to blow in North Africa, but it will take some more time for a real change.
Brig Asif Haroon Raja, a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces War Coursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national newspapers/websites.