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Egypt’s Police State is in Its DNA

Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt

By Hazem Kandil (Verso, 2012)

Reviewed by Jared Feldschreiber

Though demonstrators in Cairo last year sought promising change, reality has set in across Egypt—the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood is bent on seeking its own brand of regional stability at the expense of moderate, secular liberalism. The Egyptian government has long been a hybrid military and political fusion. Along with the rise of the police state, these are the themes of Hazem Kandil’s new book, Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen. Egypt, at the crossroads of the Arab world, still faces existential questions about its direction, yet stability has always been the main indicator of its viability as a state. On Monday, President Mohammed Morsi gave the army the power to arrest civilians in the run-up to the contentious referendum on a new constitution.

Since Gamel Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt after ousting King Farouk in a 1952 coup, he and his fellow Free Officers helped usher in an often contentious struggle with the country’s military, security, and political apparatuses. An autocrat who ruled with an iron fist, Nasser knew his enemies were mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood. His successors—Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak—also routinely infringed on the rights of citizens and dissidents.

Kandil suggests that Egypt’s true revolution, the one that includes equal rights for all and tolerance for all religions and political beliefs, is a long way off. Indeed, Egypt’s power structure is essentially a police state. Kandil's book covers much of the nation’s modern development, from the earliest days of Nasser through the post-Mubarak era, and describes the evolution of the complex bureaucracy that has increasingly strangled the government. Kandil concludes that there remains “yet another round of struggle between the three members of the reconstituted power triangle: with the military determined to regain its long-lost dominance; the security establishment adamant it should keep its leverage; and the new political partner (Muslim Brotherhood) striving to establish its position among these mighty players.”

Pan-Arabist and secular autocrats like Nasser focused on the East-West confrontation during the Cold War years as a tool to consolidate power. Nasser himself launched a united Arab front, attempting to align with Syria in the ill-fated United Arab Republic. He was never able to reconcile Islam fully with the kind of government he found most comfortable. After Egypt, Syria and Jordan suffered a humiliating defeat to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, Nasser “triggered the process of transforming Egypt from a military to a police state. Egypt's political and security leaders realized that relying on an all-powerful military was a double-edged sword. It could render the regime literally invincible to change from below, but it could also hold it hostage,” Kandil writes. “Never again would the armed forces be allowed to accumulate such political leverage….The army's disastrous performance at war, as painful as it was, provided [him] with a golden opportunity to… minimize the political role of the military.”

After Nasser died in 1970 his successor, Anwar Sadat, respected in few channels of the government or military, had a difficult time dealing with his officers. After the catastrophic 1973 Yom Kippur War, he even fired General Saad Mohamed el-Husseiny el-Shazly, his chief of staff, at the pinnacle of his military career. Sadat thought the civilian police—as opposed to the military state—should be strengthened. Under Sadat, Egypt's police force became paramount, overshadowing the military. “By the time Hosni Mubarak began his long tenure,” Kandil writes, “the course had already been set: the military had been marginalized and increasingly regarded with suspicion; the police had proven to be loyal and reliable.”

The president began to augment the police force in personnel and weaponry. The paramilitary Central Security Forces rapidly inflated from 100,000 to 300,000 troops in 1977, and its arsenal was upgraded from batons and rifles to tear gas and armored vehicles. After Sadat's assassination, decision making in Mubarak’s army continued to be highly centralized, though much of Egypt was defined as a dangerous police state. Kandil likens the Mubarak era to Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; best of times for the net beneficiaries of the July, 1952 regime; a ruling class plundering with impunity and security men who perceived themselves… as the masters of the country, the worst of times, for everybody else.”

Kandil also suggests that Egypt's newfound monetary and security reliance on American aid led its military brass to resent the government. After all, the United States cajoled, even manipulated Sadat to serve its own interests. Clearly, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sadat wanted the Russians off his back, and the Sinai, seized by Israeli troops, to be returned to Egyptian sovereignty. He turned to the Americans. “Henry Kissinger believed that Sadat could open the doors of the Arab world to the United States.”

Egypt's police state is embedded in its national DNA. Strong man politics has defined the government for decades. An autocrat like Mubarak “did little more than follow the dotted line marked by his predecessor. He simply extended and reinforced the three trends set in place when he assumed office in 1981: the marginalization of the military, the empowerment of the security force, and the increased reliance on a state-nurtured capitalist class to run the country… he was a stabilizer not an innovator. . . . after all is said and done, the sudden (and maybe temporary) collapse of the regime in 2011 was the cumulative result of 6 decades of power struggles within the ruling coalition.” Ultimately, in the 2011 Arab Spring the military abandoned Mubarak, a stunning turn of events that led to the president’s demise.

Rigid bureaucracy persists in Egypt. Newly arrived President Mohamed Morsi has sought to redraft the constitution, appealing to hard-line Islamists. Clashes in the streets have returned, but this time the police force has been largely absent—so far. This past weekend’s threats of martial law could return the police to the streets, however, with unknown consequences. The national referendum on a new constitution, scheduled for this Saturday December 15, is seen by many as a possible ruse by the Muslim Brotherhood to legitimize and consolidate their rule, and thwart their opposition. “Muslim Brotherhood has a strategic choice to make,” Kandil concludes. “If it decides to counterbalance the two coercive institutions in a bid to dominate the regime, then Egypt's former authoritarian regime will likely be reproduced, albeit with an Islamic flavor that adds to its legitimacy.” Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen serves as an indispensable read for anyone seeking clarity on the ongoing struggle between the military, security and political apparatuses of Egypt's autocracy.

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Jared Feldschreiber is an editorial associate at World Policy Journal.

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