The armed forces were a central part of the Egyptian regime from 1952 onward. They supplied the Free Officers who toppled the monarchy and replaced it with a republican order. All four presidents of the era hailed from the military’s ranks. The army was known to control a large economic empire, and senior officers regularly went on to lucrative careers after retirement. Unlike in Tunisia, where the army was kept marginal under Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt was widely considered to be an officers’ republic. Why, then, did the military not intervene to save President Husni Mubarak when Egyptians rose up against him in early 2011? Why did the army decline to crush the uprising, when its Bahraini and Syrian counterparts tried to do so?


The question is important in light of revisionist studies arguing that the military was no longer invested in Mubarak’s rule by the time that Egyptians overthrew it. [1] It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze how Mubarak integrated the top brass into his patronage system. Others have studied that topic elsewhere. [2] It is clear, however, that the military elite benefited immensely from the old regime’s largesse. The armed forces’ parallel economy — what Robert Springborg has termed “Military, Inc.” — offered senior officers opportunities for self-enrichment outside civilian monitoring. After retirement, the top brass often secured appointments to prized civilian positions in the state bureaucracy, while retired major generals also occupied the upper levels of local government. The luckiest of these retirees, those placed on boards of directors of state companies, could expect monthly salaries ranging from $16,670 to $83,333 — even the low end being an unimaginable bonanza for the average Egyptian. [3] The accelerated neoliberal turn in the mid-1990s created still more opportunities for the military elite, as Egypt’s new business class bought up what the generals-turned-bureaucrats had the authority to sell — namely, public lands and companies. [4] The officials systematically underpriced the state assets in exchange for generous kickbacks. ‘Abd al-Halim Qandil, a writer and activist, argues that under Mubarak the top brass became as affluent as Egypt’s wealthiest businessmen. [5] Another journalist, Muhammad Saad Khattab, maintains that the personal fortune of Maj. Gen. Sayyid Mish‘al, a former minister of military production, exceeds 2 billion Egyptian pounds ($333 million). [6]

An additional incentive to protect Mubarak was the lack of acceptable alternatives. The military reckoned that the breakdown of his regime would usher the Society of Muslim Brothers into power. That scenario was unwelcome: The generals figured that the Brothers, an organized political movement with a wide social base, would need them less than Mubarak did. Second, it had been orthodoxy in the armed forces for decades to bar the Brothers entry to the officer corps. According to a retired brigadier general who served as an instructor at the Military Academy, the cadet selection committee immediately disqualifies any candidate with a close family member who belongs to or sympathizes with the Brothers. The rationale is to keep the armed forces “religiously and politically neutral.” [7] Otherwise, the ideological polarization in society at large would begin to divide the officer corps.

The relationship between the military elite and Mubarak was hardly devoid of tension. The top brass were unhappy with the increased importance of the police and, more important, opposed to the grooming of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to succeed his father. The officers wanted Egypt’s next president to be one of their own. [8] Yet the friction was a dispute between allies, sharing the same spoils and equally committed to regime continuity, just with different candidates in mind for the top job. When the 2011 uprising erupted, the generals had much more in common with Mubarak than with the Muslim Brothers or the young revolutionaries of Tahrir Square. Their behavior as the uprising unfolded is testimony to their continued loyalty.

Not Neutral

The regime unleashed considerable force against protesters during four days of fierce street battles at the beginning of the uprising. From January 25–28, 2011, the clashes between anti-regime demonstrators, on one hand, and security forces and riot police, on the other, were so violent that the Guardian described Cairo as a “war zone.” [9] At least 846 people died, mostly civilians. [10] The army could have stopped the bloodshed. All the police forces combined were no match for the military’s superior firepower. But the soldiers remained in their barracks, emerging only on orders from Mubarak after the police lines collapsed.

Over the next few days, demonstrators were uncertain about the military’s intent. Tanks parked in Tahrir Square, but the drivers opened the hatches to join in chants that “the army and the people are on hand.” Many observers hoped merely that the army was neutral in the confrontation. Then, on January 30, air force jets flew menacingly over the assembled crowds. This incident has been interpreted as evidence that the military was “split by some internal contradictions,” with the air force defending Mubarak, a former pilot, and the other branches against him. [11] According to a retired major general, however: “It didn’t matter whether the air force leaned toward Mubarak or not. The air force cannot operate unless the skies are safe, which means that the air defense system needs to be deactivated when the planes are in the skies. Otherwise, the planes might be shot down. The Air Defense Brigades in Egypt are an independent corps and they take orders from the armed forces command, not the air force.” [12]

It appears, in other words, that the whole military command remained in Mubarak’s camp. Two days later, on February 2, regime loyalists launched the infamous Battle of the Camel, riding into the protesters’ ranks with whips and clubs. The soldiers did nothing, in effect allowing the thugs’ assault to proceed. Behind the scenes, the generals gave Mubarak time to prepare his interventions on national TV, in which he offered a mix of minor concessions and promises in the hope that the protesters would disperse. “At the beginning, we gave the presidential institution the full opportunity to manage events,” a senior officer told the Washington Post. “If
it had been able to succeed, nothing would have happened. We would have pulled our people back to the barracks. But they were incapable of responding to the events.” [13]

The army, in short, was not neutral. Only later, when it became clear that a bloodbath would be required to dislodge the protesters from Tahrir Square, did the military exert pressure on Mubarak to step down. On February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that it was taking charge of the country. But therein lies a puzzle. If the senior officers’ interests were intertwined with Mubarak’s, why did the SCAF decide not to order troops to fire on demonstrators? When the police, air force and hired goons failed to intimidate the protesters, why did the generals balk at repressing them?

A Tale of Two Officer Corps

Officers issue orders, but subordinates execute them. Had the SCAF head, Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi, commanded the army to quash the uprising, he would have been asking mid-ranking and junior officers, as well as the rank and file, to open fire on civilians in Tahrir Square. Would those officers and soldiers have obeyed the orders?

The evidence suggests not. Recall that Mubarak’s patronage system was aimed at the upper echelons. The various financial and professional rewards lavished upon major generals did not trickle down to the middle ranks, let alone to non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers. The monthly wages of mid-ranking and junior officers ranged from $333 to $414, roughly the equivalent of a Cairo cab driver’s income. [14] To be sure, the armed forces offer mid-ranking and junior officers some advantages over most Egyptians in housing and health care. These officers, however, were unhappy with their economic lot. According to a retired major general: “The mid-ranking and junior officers were struggling financially. There was a widespread feeling among the people that the regime was stealing Egypt’s wealth and that there was a group of thieves around Gamal Mubarak pillaging Egypt. The officers were aware of the prevalent mood and were affected by it. That was particularly true of junior officers, many of whom were not able to get married for lack of financial means and because they could not afford an apartment. The junior officers were very critical of Mubarak.” [15]

Mubarak’s coercive system was built on an inherent contradiction: The soldiers he needed to keep him in power had no incentive to keep him there. These soldiers, moreover, were not ready to tarnish their own reputations, and that of the institution to which they belonged, by shooting their fellow citizens for the sake of Mubarak and his equally unpopular heir apparent. Hazem Kandil relates an episode in which a colonel descended from his vehicle and promised demonstrators to cut off his own hands “before firing one bullet.” And this incident was not isolated. [16] Maj. Ahmad Shouman publicly went over to the uprising on February 10. His defection alarmed the SCAF. [17]

The divergence in disposition between the top brass and younger officers endured after the fall of Mubarak. The 21 “officers of April 8” who ignored regulations forbidding military personnel from participating in political activities, and were arrested for joining an April 2011 protest against the slow pace of Mubarak’s trial, were all junior, mostly lieutenants and captains. (All but one of these officers were later pardoned by Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, then SCAF’s minister of defense. [18]) In October 2011, around 500 mid-ranking and junior officers stationed in Alexandria assembled at the Air Defense Academy headquarters to protest harsh treatment and low wages. Young officers present at the gathering accused their senior colleagues of hoarding millions, while they themselves struggled to make ends meet. [19] The SCAF reacted by speeding up the promotion of scores of junior officers. [20] Extra pay was also distributed to mid-level and junior officers on particular occasions, namely, when protests were staged in Tahrir Square. [21] Still, the malaise in the lower echelons persisted and the SCAF was aware that the officer corps was getting restless. According to a foreign diplomat in Cairo: “[The SCAF] is not giving out orders that could be disobeyed, not even potentially. It knows it cannot ask its soldiers to do something they don’t want to do. If it asks soldiers to, say, fire on protesters, the SCAF knows it could end up with something like the Russian Revolution.” [22]

In sum, the SCAF was incapable of crushing the uprising, even though the top brass were not in favor of regime breakdown. Mid-ranking and junior officers did not stand to benefit materially from Mubarak’s continued rule. Neither were they bonded to the ex-president through shared aversion to his opponents. The Syrian soldiers fighting to save the regime of Bashar al-Asad do not necessarily benefit from his rule; in Syria, too, the patronage system works to the advantage of officers in the upper echelons. But Syria is a heterogeneous society where Asad’s ‘Alawi brethren can be convinced that they are really fighting for communal survival. Mubarak could not play this card because there was no ethnic or religious divide separating the protesters from the armed forces.

Finally, there is the progressive professionalization of the Egyptian officer corps in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The disastrous defeat at Israel’s hands generated a reluctance to be involved in internal politics or policing in order to avoid the deleterious effects of such duties on military performance in battle. Even when the military did intervene, to quell the bread riots in 1977, for instance, or the riot police mutiny in 1986, it did so unenthusiastically and returned to the barracks as quickly as possible. In the words of a retired major general: “The mid-ranking and junior officers would not have obeyed orders to shoot on civilians. This is a matter of institutional culture. Egyptian officers are not psychologically prepared to kill civilians. They do not receive any training in terms of maintaining internal security. This is not their job, but that of the police, if need be. The officers receive training to fight against another army, not against civilians.” [23] A corollary of professionalization was an entrenched self-perception of being the servant of the state, not of the regime. Consequently, when Mubarak turned to the army for help, none of its officers were prepared to perpetrate a massacre in order to keep him in the presidential palace.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Mostafa Hefny for his very useful comments on the manuscript.


[1] A superb example of this school of thought is Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (London: Verso, 2012).
[2] See, for example, Yezid Sayigh, Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2012) and Zeinab Abul-Magd, “The Egyptian Republic of Retired Generals,” Foreign Policy, May 8, 2012.
[3] Sayigh, p. 19.
[4] On the partnership between state officials and private capital, see John Sfakianakis, “The Whales of the Nile: Networks, Businessmen and Bureaucrats During the Era of Privatization in Egypt,” in Steven Heydemann, ed., Networks of Privilege in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave, 2004).
[5] Al-Badil, January 18, 2012.
[6] Sawt al-Umma, March 21, 2012.
[7] Interview, Cairo, June 12, 2012.
[8] Interview with retired Republican Guard major general, Cairo, June 14, 2012.
[9] Guardian, January 25, 2011.
[10] Associated Press, April 19, 2011.
[11] Paul Amar, “Why Mubarak Is Out,” Jadaliyya, February 1, 2011.
[12] Interview, Cairo, June 13, 2012.
[13] Washington Post, May 18, 2011.
[14] Reuters, April 10, 2012.
[15] Interview, Cairo, July 1, 2012.
[16] Kandil, p. 226.
[17] Interview with retired major general, Cairo, June 10, 2012.
[18] Al-Misri al-Yawm, September 29, 2012.
[19] Reuters, April 10, 2012.
[20] Patrick Galey, “Why the Egyptian Military Fears a Captains’ Revolt,” Foreign Policy, February 16, 2012.
[21] Guardian, December 28, 2011.
[22] Galey, “Captains’ Revolt.”
[23] Interview, Cairo, July 1, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Hicham Bou Nassif "Why the Egyptian Army Didn’t Shoot," Middle East Report 265 (Winter 2012).

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