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Egypt Post-Mubarak: Key Facts on the Military’s Long-Standing Role

What we’ve learned about the Egyptian military, and what this could mean for where things are headed.

Hosni Mubarak resigned as of this morning, ending a 30-year rule as Egypt’s head of state and leaving control in the hands of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

With Egypt’s military leaders now at the country’s helm, what the future of the reform movement will look like is anybody’s guess. But here’s a look back at what we’ve learned—and are still learning—about the Egyptian military, and what this could mean for where things are headed.

Who sits on Egypt’s now-ruling military council—and what might they do?

Al Jazeera has a look at a few of the key leaders on the council. Several were members of the cabinet Mubarak appointed in an early—and fruitless—attempt to appease the protesters. Among them are Vice President Omar Suleiman, who announced Mubarak’s resignation today, and Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the man described by some in the army as “Mubarak’s poodle.”

“There are two directions the Higher Military Council can go,” former army General Samah Seif El Yazal told the BBC. “The first is to ask the existing government to run the country for a transitional period of perhaps a year. The other option is for the military to run the country by committee. We are very anxious to hear from them about what they intend to do.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leading voices in the protests, told Foreign Policy yesterday that he does not have “any confidence” that Suleiman or the “bunch of military people” can be a steward of a democratic transition. “They don’t understand, let alone are willing to move Egypt into democracy, unless we keep kicking their behinds,” ElBaradei said.

The Egyptian military has long been a force behind the throne.

“Egypt’s government is not so much a Mubarak government as it is a military government,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Bloomberg last month, when the protests had only gone on for a week.

Let’s not forget, after all, that since the Egyptian military led a coup in 1952 and ended the country’s rule under the British monarchy, all three of the country’s presidents—including Mubarak—have been military men. (Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, had long been believed to be a potential successor to the presidency—an idea that top military officials hated. Gamal had no background in the military.)

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cautioned that the new leadership—more or less the old leadership without Mubarak—may want to keep a “Mubarak-style government without Mubarak.”

The Egyptian military has internal rifts and divided loyalties.

As we noted earlier this week, U.S. embassy cables describe some of the military’s internal divisions, particularly between the mid-level officers and the organization’s leadership. Here’s what we wrote:

One cable describes mid-level army officers as “disgruntled” and particularly critical of Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, whom they saw as too subservient to Mubarak’s regime. … Another cable, this one from 2008, describes Tantawi as opposed to “economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power.”

The Egyptian military has a substantial hold on the country’s economy—and its leaders have a financial in interest in preserving that.

Given that one of the protesters’ many grievances is the lack of economic reform and the country’s high unemployment, it’s surprising how little attention has been paid to the military’s entrenched role in Egypt’s current economy.

Very little is actually known about the military’s finances or precisely how its operates (apart, of course, from the fact that it gets $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid.)

This U.S. embassy cable from 2008 gives a glimpse of the Egyptian military’s holdings:

Contacts told us that military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries. XXXXXXXXXXXX pointed out that military companies built the modern road to the Ain Souknah Red Sea resorts 90 minutes from Cairo and Cairo University's new annex. He noted the large amounts of land owned by the military in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea coast, speculating that such property is a "fringe benefit" in exchange for the military ensuring regime stability and security. (Comment: We see the military's role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets. End comment.)

The military “generally opposes economic reforms,” viewing privatization efforts “as a threat to its economic position,” the cable said.

Here’s Time Magazine explaining how the military came to be such a big business:

Military factories first sprang up in the 1820s to produce uniforms and small arms. Their role expanded with the state-led economy from the early 1950s and was consolidated when the military needed to place hundreds of thousands soldiers downsized after the peace agreement with Israel. (At that point, the active military had numbered about 900,000.)

… Another source of the military's untold wealth is its hold on one of this densely populated country's most precious commodities: public land, which is increasingly being converted into gated communities and resorts. The military has other advantages: it does not pay taxes and does not have to deal with the bureaucratic red tape that strangles the private sector.

Estimates vary as to how much of the Egyptian economy is run by the military—ranging from 5 percent to 40 percent, according to NPR. The commercial revenue has proved lucrative, and helped top military officers maintain a kind of lifestyle that includes “an extensive network of luxurious social clubs as well as comfortable retirements—all of which helps ensure officer loyalty,” Time noted.

“Upon retirement, senior officers are given hefty retirement packages and appointed as provincial governors or head of municipalities,” Egyptian author Moustafa El-Husseini told Bloomberg, citing Magdy Sharawi, a former Egyptian air force commander, as just one example. Sharawi is now Egypt’s ambassador to Switzerland.

The military played a role in the crackdown and arrest of protestors.

After days of reports that Egyptian soldiers had in many cases worked to suppress the pro-democracy protesters, the State Department finally acknowledged that “elements within the military” had taken part in the crackdown against journalists and activists. The U.S. also maintained that the “military did play a constructive role.”

The Guardian, meanwhile, explained the military’s involvement in the violence in far more concrete terms:

The Guardian has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organised campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

One of those detained by the army was a 23-year-old man who would only give his first name, Ashraf, for fear of again being arrested. He was detained last Friday on the edge of Tahrir Square carrying a box of medical supplies intended for one of the makeshift clinics treating protesters attacked by pro-Mubarak forces.

"I was on a sidestreet and a soldier stopped me and asked me where I was going. I told him and he accused me of working for foreign enemies and other soldiers rushed over and they all started hitting me with their guns," he said.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said it had documented at least 119 cases of arbitrary detention by the military.

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