“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” So said President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. Americans understood this warning to refer to the incestuous relations between high-ranking military officers and the arms industry.
In the Arab world’s military autocracies, the industrial side of this complex is not arms manufacturing. The officer corps reaches into every profit center in the country.
Hosni Mubarak has now stepped down. His handing over the country’s government to the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, however, is not likely to threaten the economic ties that connect the army officer corps with the business world — ties that have been an almost continual feature of Egyptian society, and Arab society more generally, since the year 1250. Vice President Omar Suleiman may negotiate constitutional changes, but he will never agree to a restructuring of Egyptian politics that diminishes the privileges of the military.
Portrayals of the Egyptian military during the Egyptian standoff as a potential balancing force between an unyielding president and an angry street missed the underlying dynamic of rule by army officers in most Arab countries. The army rank and file live in barracks, but the officers enjoy the good life and are deeply committed to their relatives and cronies in the business community.
Yemen offers a clear example. Relatives and business partners of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the general who has been in power even longer than Mubarak, play major roles in oil exploration, petroleum services, heavy equipment, highway building, cement production, mango farming, cotton exporting, mobile phones, banking and many other enterprises. Saleh’s relatives also number four colonels and two brigadier generals, with two more generals coming from the president’s home village. All of them hold high command positions.
For Egypt, one must multiply the Yemeni example many-fold and look not just at one family, but at the top officer ranks in general.
Big business and military privilege are intimately intertwined, and businessmen who do not have the right contacts encounter many obstacles. Thus the stake of the Egyptian officer corps and its relatives and cronies in any transition to democracy is not limited to military matters.
In Iran in 1979, the colonels and generals appointed by the shah, and the business people who obsequiously served his tyranny, fled the country. But that was a true revolution. The new government seized the property of the exiles and completely overturned the economic order.
Only now is the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards Corps creating the same sort of military-industrial collusion that has long been standard in the Arab world.
Egypt’s protesters and their well-wishers around the world hope for a soft landing, not a revolution. Some of them also hope for an open economic and political system that will encourage a new generation of entrepreneurs and elected officials to dig the country out of its mire. But the livelihood of millions of others depends on a continuation of the economic status quo. Or at least on a slow and orderly conversion to a new system.
Given the size, strength, and popularity of the Egyptian Army, it is impossible to imagine a democratic transition in which the military command structure does not play a leading role. By the same token, it is impossible to imagine an orderly transition that does not in some way accommodate the economic interests of that command structure and its business allies.
Hosni Mubarak was no Dwight Eisenhower. Instead of warning against his country’s military-industrial complex, he embodied it. The question now is whether the order he represented will still prevail under a (slightly) more democratic constitution.
We can look at Turkey as an example of how long it takes to turn an officer-dominated ship of state in a positive direction. The first free election after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s autocratic rule took place in 1950. Ten years later the army evicted those elected leaders in a coup. It staged further coups in 1971 and 1980. A more credible democracy did not arrive until the election of the AK Party in 2002, and even now there are periodic warnings of a fresh military coup.
Similarly, it may take 50 years for Egypt to overcome centuries of subservience to its army officers. But with Mubarak gone, it is the time to take the first step on that long and difficult road.
By Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University and author of Islam: The View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.