Egypt’s armed forces number well over 300,000 men, the largest in the Arab world or in Africa. Some two thirds are in the army, and most of the rest in the air force. Since 1952, the top political leadership has been drawn from the armed forces. Since 1968, there has been a “demilitarization” of the top political structures. A recent study calculates that the proportion of cabinet posts held by military officers declined from 35 percent under Nasser to 15 percent under Sadat. While it may not be correct, if it ever was, to speak of contemporary Egypt as a “military society” or a “praetorian state,” it is also hard to explain the absence of any substantial analysis or information about the political role of the Egyptian military over the last decade.
The armed forces does appear to be the single most important political base for the current regime. Lt. Gen. Husni Mubarak, the hand-picked successor of Col. Anwar al-Sadat, spent his professional life until 1975 as an air force officer. The present foreign minister, Gen. Kamal al-Din Hasan ‘Ali, had been chief of military intelligence before taking the defense ministry and then his current post. Lt. Gen. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Karim Abu Ghazala, the present minister of defense, spent four years in Washington as military attaché. Several important provincial governorships are in the hands of former military or security officers. Some Egyptians believe that Mubarak has not yet chosen his own vice president because he is afraid to risk picking a non-military candidate despite strong civilian pressures to do so.
Mubarak is aware that the military has also been the locus of the most significant organized opposition to the Sadat regime. A key figure in the expatriate Egyptian political opposition since 1977 is Gen. Saad al-Din Shazli, the hero of the October war. Shazli had earlier been dispatched abroad to various insignificant diplomatic posts in response to his criticisms of Sadat’s policies. There were reports in 1978 of a “New Free Officers” group, stationed in the Red Sea command, who were arrested for plotting against Sadat after Camp David. Some 11 air force officers were arrested in September 1979 for anti-regime activity. Following the January 1977 riots, in which the army was used to restore order, the burden of handling popular disturbances was shifted to a new 10,000-man paramilitary force under the control of the minister of interior.
The ability of the Islamic opposition to assassinate Sadat rested on their infiltration of the military. The leader of that action, Lt. Khalid al-Islambouli, was an artillery officer. Another defendant in that case, Lt. Col. ‘Abboud al-Zumur, was a military intelligence officer. An unknown number of officers were dismissed in the immediate aftermath of the assassination for ties with the Islamic opposition, but the exact dimensions of the military role were never revealed in the trial. The official investigation remained in the hands of the military intelligence. The top military leadership is presumed to be loyal to Mubarak and Abu Ghazala, but the extent of Islamic-based opposition sympathies among the junior officers is a crucial unknown.
Inflation and the extent of infitah-related profiteering seem to have reduced the relative material standing of the officer corps. Officers receive special privileges and compensations, but there are indications that grievances among the military may be significant. Air force technicians went on strike at four bases early this year over a regulation that would extend from eight to 12 years the period of service necessary to qualify for a commission. The mutiny was broken and ringleaders court-martialed, but the regulations were reversed and the air force commander retired.
The Egyptian government and the US have placed a high premium on maintaining the political support of the military through a lavish rearmament program funded largely through US Foreign Military Sales loans. These credits now total $3.5 billion, and the Egyptians have already ordered more than $4 billion worth of equipment. US military aid is scheduled to remain at the present level of $1.3 billion per year for at least the next five years. The total US rearmament program will cost Egypt well over $10 billion in future repayments. In addition, Egypt has placed well over $1 billion worth of additional arms orders with European—mostly French—firms.
Pentagon officials have testified that “modernizing the equipment of the Egyptian forces and establishing close relationships between the US and Egyptian military” are essential ingredients of the “profound shift in Egypt’s orientation.” Defense Minister Abu Ghazala specializes in lecturing Egyptian and foreign journalists on the dangers of “Soviet encirclement” to justify this vast mortgaging of Egypt’s economic future. In this he receives encouragement from the US. One official stationed in Cairo explained that “it’s a more exciting exercise to prepare for a defensive role much broader in scope than that required to oppose a single nation to the east. There is now a larger mission, and a broader defense is needed.”
This “larger mission” means an important new market for US arms manufacturers. Egypt is already committed to purchasing 80 F-16s, alone worth nearly $3 billion, and “the Egyptian air force is considered within the Reagan administration as the best market for the Northrop F-5G Tiger shark fighter.” US military assistance already extends to the expansion of Egyptian military industries. According to Gamal al-Sayyid, minister of military production, Egyptian factories turned out $270 million worth of military goods, in 1981 for Egyptian use, in addition to production for Iraq and other export markets. The Egyptians advertise their low-cost skilled labor, limited trade union power, low taxes and proximity to Middle Eastern and African markets as inducements to co-production agreements with Western arms manufacturers. According to Aviation Week, “US and Western European aerospace industry officials here believe Egypt is the key to doing business in Africa and the Middle East…. Egypt, and all of Africa through Egyptian licensed or co-production, is a market far larger than China was considered several years ago.”
In one area—military bases for the US Rapid Deployment Force—problems in the US-Egyptian military relationship have already developed. Despite the loudly proclaimed success of last November’s massive Bright Star military exercise, Congress has been unwilling to fund the construction of a $500 million air base at Ra’s Banas, across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia. Egypt has refused to guarantee in writing US access to Ra’s Banas, which would be the largest and most central of the several RDF bases in the region.
Sources: Mark Cooper, “The Demilitarization of the Egyptian Cabinet,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 14/2 (May 1982); Aviation Week and Space Technology, December 14, 1981, January 4, February 1 and March 22, 1982; Financial Times, June 7, 1982; Business Week, April 19, 1982; Defense and Foreign Affairs, April 1982; hearings before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, April-May 1979.