When hundreds of thousands of citizens staged a public protest against President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 that granted him legislative, executive and judicial powers over Egypt, the first question many observers asked was: will the army intervene? When the Muslim Brotherhood militia launched a bloody assault on protesters in front of the presidential palace, under the noses (and sometimes with the support) of the security forces, and the scene turned into one that looked very much like the first sparks of a civil war, again people started to wonder: is this the army’s moment? Will there be a coup under the pretext of bringing law and order?
Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the army intended to back the regime, even as it called for a dialogue between the different parties. Despite the army’s decisive impact on the political fate of Egypt, it remains one of the country’s most opaque, least understood and least studied actors. Hazem Kandil’s book valuably fills this gap in a comprehensive and timely manner. He makes the case that in order to understand the ultimate configuration of power in Egypt, one needs to study the role of three actors: the political leadership, the security forces and the army. His approach is a historical-sociological one, which enables him to expose the changing power balance among the trio over time as they act and react to external and internal influences. The book’s great strength lies in its representation of the army as embedded in a complex node of power relations between and within different actors. Kandil’s narrative of the changing position of the army in relation to state power draws on the political, economic, sociological and security factors influencing Egypt’s changing landscape.
Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen challenges some of the myths about the relationship between the regime of deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the army, and in particular the view that the will of the military was the same as that of the ruler, and that their interests were also as one. Prior to the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, some political analysts pointed to the army’s disapproval of Mubarak’s decision to pass the presidency to his son, Gamal Mubarak. It was no secret that Gamal had no military credentials to speak of, was surrounded by a group of businessmen and sought an alliance with the security forces to the detriment of the army. However, what Kandil illustrates here, via a convincing set of evidence, is that the army was already harbouring a great deal of resentment against Mubarak’s regime.
As Egypt increasingly became a police state during the latter years of Mubarak’s rule, the role of the State Security Investigations service reigned supreme, and the army found itself sidelined from the political process. Moreover, as Kandil shows, the army itself would become a target for SSI surveillance, much to its displeasure. And despite the hype about the role played by the US in propping up the Egyptian military, there was much resentment in the corps about the nature, quality and quantity of support offered by the Americans. It was no secret that US support for Egypt was always intended to keep the country’s armed forces many steps behind those of Israel.
Rumours of the military’s economic activities had led many analysts to see it as a burgeoning empire unto itself. However, Kandil’s analysis of the figures and realities on the ground paints another picture: in recent years, the army’s share of Egypt’s gross domestic product has been diminishing. The author’s systematic analysis shows that the marginalisation of the military from the centre of power did not happen overnight: instead, key leadership changes, events and circumstances unfolded across half a century to bring the army to where it was at the time of the revolution.
In short, Kandil observes: “After having been sidelined by the security and political apparatuses for years, the military saw the revolt as an opportunity to outflank its partners and get back on top.” But in post-Mubarak Egypt, the army did not quite manage to emerge victorious and with a full grip on power - another myth that Kandil dismisses convincingly. He argues that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that ruled at the outset of the revolution was weakened by its failure to carry out the kinds of revolutionary changes made to the political and security institutions by the “Free Officers” who staged the 1952 coup. The reason? Kandil suggests political inexperience and a fear “that internal instability might drag the army into protracted policing activities” - in short, it dared not open Pandora’s box.
However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, “people power” had been unleashed, making politics the domain not only of soldiers, spies and statesmen, but also of citizens. It would have been interesting to read more about why the army adopted such ruthless tactics vis-a-vis peaceful citizens’ protests after its rise to power. For example, Kandil makes no mention of the Maspero Massacre in October 2011, for which the army, not the police, was primarily responsible. The world watched as television cameras captured images of an army repeatedly crushing peaceful protesters under its vehicles. The massacre, which left 30 dead and more than 220 injured, represented a momentous change in the relationship between the military and the revolutionary forces. In effect it opened the floodgates of revolt against the army, and the revolution’s slogan changed from that of “The army, the people, one hand!” to “Down, down with military rule!”
Yet there is one party that has remained consistently loyal to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to this day: the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the constitution passed in a referendum in late December is one that will grant the military special privileges. These include the ability to try civilians in military courts if their actions are seen to be “damaging” to the army. The wording is so vague that any public criticism of military violence against civilians or efforts to hold its personnel to account could qualify as damaging behaviour. One theory is that in the days before Mubarak was ousted, a political settlement was forged between the army and the Brotherhood whereby the latter would allow the former a safe exit from power with impunity, while the former would ease the Islamists’ ascendancy to power. Kandil does not broach this subject here, but perhaps he has another book on the subject waiting to be written. Hopefully it will offer the same meticulous documentation, engaging style and skilful weaving of complex phenomena into a coherent narrative as Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen.
Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt
By Hazem Kandil
Verso, 312pp, £16.99
Published 26 November 2012