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A Tale of Two Egyptian Armies

Lee Smith

Last week, the Obama administration started releasing the $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt that’s been on hold since October. Over the objections of human rights advocates and democracy activists, Hillary Clinton signed a waiver allowing Washington to circumvent recent legislation tying military assistance to the State Department’s certification that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s interim ruling body, is protecting the basic rights and freedoms of Egyptian citizens.

In spite of SCAF’s documented human rights abuses, the aid will begin flowing again because the Obama administration has come to recognize a little more than a year after the fall of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak that U.S. policymakers have no other instruments with which to influence a political system that may be spiraling out of control.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are unhappy, especially since charges against American democratic rights activists—including Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood—for interfering in Egypt’s political system have yet to be entirely resolved. It was clearly a case of political extortion, and there is no secret what Cairo wanted in exchange for letting the U.S. activists leave Egypt on bail—the military aid that the Obama administration was withholding in an effort to exercise leverage on the Egyptian regime.

In short, no matter how the administration plays it, Egypt right now is in a much stronger bargaining position than the U.S., and there is no sign the balance of power is going to shift anytime soon.

To be sure, many in Washington would like to cut off the Egyptian military or at least limit its share of U.S aid. Right now, only a fraction of the total assistance package, a little over $1.5 billion this year, is in economic aid, so why not tip the scales and give the whole package to the Egyptian people? With tourist receipts and foreign direct investment down, and foreign reserves dwindling, it would be an especially good time to pump cash directly into an economy in freefall.

The problem of course is that it would be almost impossible to bypass SCAF to get that money to ordinary Egyptians. And even if it were feasible, in the wake of the democracy activist trial, Washington is more sensitive than ever to claims of “interference.”

But the real issue is that Egypt’s rulers don’t see the country’s dire economic situation the same way Washington does. For the White House, Egypt is too big to fail. From SCAF’s perspective, Egypt has weathered famine and worse many times over the last several millennia and it will get through it this time, too. The fact that the Americans are scared of what might happen should Egypt crash means that SCAF’s in the driver’s seat—at least as long as it keeps threatening to steer the country off a cliff.

From this perspective, almost everything that seems bad for Egypt, or anything that terrifies the U.S., is good for the SCAF. For instance, a referendum recently passed in the new Islamist-dominated parliament to expel the Israeli ambassador, halt gas exports to Israel and identify the Jewish state as Egypt’s “number one enemy” only makes the Egyptian military look good by comparison. Since foreign policymaking as a whole, and the caretaking of the peace treaty with Israel in particular, is the exclusive privilege of the army, it is up to them to make the final call on any of those initiatives coming out of parliament. The point is: Yes, things could get even worse in Egypt, much worse, so the White House wants to keep the Egyptian army happy.

The fact that, as the Washington Post today reports, the Muslim Brotherhood may now feel more confident in challenging the army further concentrates the administration’s attention. Washington needs to maintain the stability of the army. After all, this is why American policymakers were finally able to convince themselves last February that they didn’t need Mubarak. The Pentagon knows the Egyptian army almost as well as its own; the U.S. military has trained Egyptian officers for thirty years and the relationship couldn’t be closer.

The reality is that there is not one Egyptian military—there are two. American policymakers are allied with the first, whom they have to support in order to prevent the second army from rising up.

The first is simply the large institution now headed by Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who as head of SCAF became Egypt’s de facto ruler after Mubarak’s departure. This is the same junta that has governed Egypt since the 1952 revolution that deposed the monarchy and put in power a series of military officers, Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and then Mubarak. It’s the most powerful institution in all of Egypt, and therefore the most corrupt, but it also recognizes that there are certain limits it can’t transgress. Tantawi and the others are raising the price on Washington, but they’re not looking to throw away the U.S.-Egypt relationship.

It is that other, second Egyptian army that might choose to rewrite the rules. This is not the military or the vast business interests overseen by the 76-year-old Tantawi. It’s the army that, if the circumstances are right, might someday overthrow those senior officers the Americans trust. Right now, it exists only in the imagination of junior officers; a shadow army with its own agenda, shaped by smoldering resentments and soaring ambitions. This institution engendered the 1952 Free Officers’ Coup and Nasser, the Arab nationalist demagogue who set the template for half a century’s worth of radical Middle East politics. It’s an army of ideological commitment, regardless of the motivating ideas. Almost thirty years after deposing the king, this same army gave rise to the junior officers like Khaled Islambouli who made up the cell that assassinated Sadat.

The Islambouli plot only half-succeeded. Sadat was dead but the Free Officers’ regime lived on. With Mubarak at the helm, it entered its most stable—or, depending on one’s point of view, static—phase. That’s the military regime the White House seeks to preserve, essentially Mubarakism without Mubarak. The nightmare scenario is not merely a political system dominated by Islamists, or a country of more than 80 million on the verge of bankruptcy and threatening to break the peace treaty with Israel. Rather, it’s all of that, and governed by an ideologically ambitious military that wants to revive Egypt’s role as leader of the Arab world. The White House does not want to see that army take shape—but it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that $1.3 billion is going to keep it in the shadows forever.

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