Endgames: The Response of Egypt’s Military to the 2011 uprising

5 min readJan 20, 2021


By Ahmed Al-Ghunaimi

“Since 2011, the storylines emerging from the Arab Spring have told the story of autocrats preparing their armies to thwart coups only to end up facing massive popular uprisings. Autocrats have long preferred to prevent coups above all other considerations, including military performance on the battlefield.”

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring a decade ago, armies have spawned tyranny, as in the Egyptian case, and civil war, as in the cases of Yemen, Syria and Libya — and a difficult path toward democracy in Tunisia.

The indisputable fact confirmed by the Arab Spring is that “popular uprisings can lead to tyrannical collapses only when armies cease to defend the status quo.” Why then did the Egyptian military abandon Mubarak? There are three possible answers: the military’s rejection of Mubarak’s plan to pass power to his son, the intervention of the United States and, third, concern about the cohesion of the army.

The position of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)

Hicham Bou Nassif ends his newly released book Endgames: Military Response to Protest in Arab Autocracies by saying that the Military Council remained an anti-revolutionary force committed to preserving the status quo until Mubarak’s last days. The SCAF was not neutral in 2011, nor did it support the uprising. It was a fundamentally counter-revolutionary force in 2011, and beyond. And, instead, corrupt senior officers felt they had to sacrifice Mubarak in order to protect the system in which they have long prospered.

Grooming Mubarak’s son for power

According to Bou Nassif, Mubarak’s plan to pass power to his son was not central to the calculations of the SCAF during the 2011 uprising. He does not agree with the claim that the SCAF saw Gamal Mubarak as a threat. On the contrary, the ‘succession’ project aimed to preserve the status quo, which was in the interest of the SCAF. We should not forget that the generals hated the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as liberal and leftist activists, far more than they hated Mubarak’s son. From their perspective, Gamal or any other loyal civilian figure, was an acceptable option for president provided the status quo was maintained.

The SCAF was the centre of corruption in the armed forces, which is why the military elite preferred one of them to be president. It is difficult to imagine Gamal acting in the name of the national interest to put an end to the generals’ corruption. Second, Gamal was familiar with the inner workings of the regime and was fully aware of the importance of keeping the generals content. The claim that SCAF wanted to protect Egypt from Gamal Mubarak’s unbridled neoliberalism is a myth that is inconsistent with careful analysis of the facts. Gamal and the military elite were far from ideological enemies.

This was true on the geopolitical and economic levels. The senior officers wanted to preserve peace with Israel and considered Iran and its extensions in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas) as their main enemies. On these issues, the military saw in Gamal Mubarak a continuation of the policies of the father.

While there was no guarantee that a Muslim Brotherhood presidency or a presidency of other forces of change would not investigate SCAF corruption, it was certain that Gamal would not pose such a threat for obvious reasons.

While a Muslim Brotherhood government might have been tempted to satisfy popular expectations of social justice by rethinking the neoliberal policies that have served the interests of senior officers, a Gamal Mubarak government would have been less sensitive to popular pressure.

In short, the senior officers wanted to avoid regional adventures while staying away from the political spotlight as well as direct military rule. They were aware that competition to succeed Mubarak would have pitted aspiring generals against each other, whereas Gamal’s presidency would have kept senior officers together.

Although America’s influence in Cairo is real, the importance of US military assistance to Egypt has been overstated. The armed forces still receive $1.3 billion annually from the United States, but this amount has decreased in real terms by 50%.

The position of the United States

Bou Nassif believes that there are limits to US influence. One researcher concludes convincingly that Washington has much less capacity to shape events in Egypt than is generally believed. Another researcher sheds light on the limits of American power in the Middle East, and says that US influence during the Arab uprisings, in particular, was “much less than most Americans or Arabs think.”

Egypt’s military budget has expanded over the years to such an extent that US aid represents a smaller percentage of the overall budget. According to Zeinab Abul-Magd, during the time of former Minister of Defence Abu Ghazaleh in 1984, the Egyptian military budget was $1.8 billion, while the total state budget was $15 billion. American aid amounted to more than 70% of the army’s budget at the time and about 9% of the national budget. Today, the military budget under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is about $4 billion, while the total state budget is about $95 billion. This means that US military aid has decreased to about 30% of the official military budget, and only 1.3% of the state budget. Most importantly, the Egyptian military annually earns hundreds of millions of dollars in extra-budgetary revenue from its vast business empire. According to Bou Nassif, the events of the 2013 coup, especially the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre, suggest that the alleged fears within the Egyptian military elite about a US reaction were overstated.

The cohesion of the military

Senior officers ousted Mubarak from power for two reasons. First, expelling protesters from Tahrir Square would have led to a bloodbath. Second, ordering the forces to open fire would have led to a low-ranking rebellion, thus endangering the survival of the generals.

Protecting the cohesion of the armed forces was “at the core” of the SCAF’s decision to remove Mubarak from power, having given him “every opportunity” to save his regime before his eventual fall. Bou Nassif argues that Tantawi’s refusal to shoot at the demonstrators was not to protect the revolution, but rather to preserve the unity of the armed forces, especially the younger officers who did not share the same interests as the Mubarak regime as their senior colleagues.

The younger officers were not united by the perception of a common threat. The homogeneous nature of Egyptian society prevented Mubarak from portraying the protesters as the sectarian “other”, as Bashar al-Assad did in Syria. The Mubarak regime could not credibly argue that the masses of Egyptians who took to the streets were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or religious fanatics. Thousands peacefully took to the streets to change the regime, including the urban poor, the alienated elite, Islamists, trade union activists, liberals and leftists. The peaceful nature of the popular mobilization was unambiguous, hence the dilemma of the senior military leaders.

It is no surprise that those who do not have a special interest in the current situation — economically or intellectually — were not prepared to kill their fellow citizens since Mubarak did not develop a way to tie the army as a whole to his rule through shared ideological commitments. Instead, he relied mainly on promoting the interests of the top brass. To conclude, Bou Nassif suggests that protests can arrive quickly, and when they do, they can only sustain themselves through a critical and coherent bloc.

The source: Aljazeera.net (Original Content-Arabic)




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