As Egypt celebrates its national day – Revolution Day – its military is, once again, in the midst of determining the destiny of the Arab world.
Since its foundation in the 19th century, Egypt’s military has been the bellwether of Arab political thinking and trends. From protecting the monarchical thrones and resisting the British and French hegemony, to restoring secularism by putting an end to the Muslim Brotherhood rule, Egypt’s military is still the substratum of the Arab political identity.
In 1952, the free officers movement, under the leadership of the impulsive colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, forced the departure of the British forces, and laid the foundations for the military rule trend in the Arab world. Nasser was the father of Arab nationalism, which created the long-lasting pivots of the Arab balance of power until Iraq’s invasion in 2003. Despite its decimation by upheavals and sweeping ideological shifts, Nasserism is still deeply rooted within Egypt’s military ranks.
Throughout the Middle East’s modern history, Egypt’s army has always been the Arab world’s point man in every tumultuous period. At the time where Arab monarchies were stumbling like tottering towers, creating a deep sense of uncertainty and despair, Egypt’s military had the answer. It produced the secular ideological glue, which maintained order in the Arab regional sphere and created a new bipolar loyalties system, shared between the US and the Soviet Union.
After the Arab humiliating defeat at the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, all eyes turned again to Egypt’s military. It was not until the 1973 victory over Israel that the Arab people’s hope was restored. Had Nasser died in 1970, the military officer, and then new president, Anwar Sadat, led a daring and sharp turn away from Moscow towards the west. The move cornered the soviet’s influence in the Middle East, and paved the way to the then inconceivably difficult peace with Israel.
The army, which stood firmly behind the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, would later cement unprecedented intertwined cooperation with the US, and bolster the military’s position as Egypt’s king-maker-in-chief. It would also cite the start of the end of major military conflicts between Arabs and Israel, and forge what was an elusive coexistence in the Middle East.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s constant braggadocio about Israel’s “widespread relations with most Arab countries” is the fabric of that peace treaty. Although Egypt’s military has always maintained what was an Arab consensual policy of bartering Palestinian rights for a state and dignity with normal relations with Israel, some Arabs have bypassed the historical norms and rushed towards what they consider an Israeli insurance policy against Iran. This agitated the disgruntled Palestinians and gave them a sense of insecurity.
Many Palestinian officials still think that Egypt’s military is the last diplomatic, and, if needed, military reserve they have. Palestine was the foundation upon which Arab nationalism was founded, which still believed to be the ideological compass at the Army’s top helm.
But the Palestinian issue, which used to be the flagship of Arab sympathy, seems to be fading. A new kind of collision between regional alliances based on nationalism and ideology is becoming the new life-or-death matter in the Arab world. And Egypt’s military is again in the heart of the complex and perplexing puzzle.
The quashing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2013, as part of a major power showdown in the streets of Cairo, has put the brakes on the then prevailing Islamism, fostered by Islamist Turkey and tiny, but pushy Qatar. Islamists ambitions of restoring an ottoman-like caliphate have been thwarted.
But the bid to re-install stability came with a heavy humanitarian cost. Many speculate that Egypt’s new regime overdid the arbitrary arrests and the restoration of a ruthless police state. Thousands have been jailed and freedom of speech has been brutally crushed. Political opposition to president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been silenced.
The military, however, paid its bill too. Thousands of officers and soldiers have died in a protracted and never-ending war of attrition against Isis terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula. The military lost a big proportion of its national appeal through its intrusive approach towards developing a tighter grip on civil society. This positioned Egypt’s army right at the centre of the fundamental issue facing the Middle East: What do Arabs need more at this stage, democracy or stability?
Turning the Turkish and Qatari agendas around created many secular forces in Libya, Sudan and Yemen, and dealt the rising trend of Islamism a fatal blow. Now the military in Egypt is leading a new regional tendency: Economic reform.
The Arab youth’s dissatisfaction, foddered by conventional economic policies, corruption and mismanagement of the Arab world’s resources have been under the spotlight since Egypt turned the wheel on the economic stagnation the country faced since Nasser’s rule. The army is deeply involved in carrying out an IMF reform program, which has drastically changed the face of Egypt’s economy in the past three years. It will redefine the country and its people’s fate altogether, and the Arab world seems again ready to follow.