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Egypt military retains 'protector of the state' image despite faults

The military represents stability amid turmoil. Even as many are willing to overlook its transgressions, the military appears eager not to repeat mistakes.

July 17, 2013|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Ingy Hassieb

CAIRO — The young recruits with rifles and ragged duffels will never see the swimming pools of the officers clubs that line the boulevards of Cairo. They will not profit from the Egyptian military's network of private business interests. They'll eat beans and bread and earn about $30 a month.

But they will be respected as men who protect the homeland — from foreign enemies and sometimes from itself.

A military coup in most nations would signal alarm about the country's future. In Egypt, much of the country cheered. The military stands for the stability many long for amid economic turmoil and political unrest, a role no other institution is trusted to fill.

PHOTOS: Turmoil in Egypt

In the last two years the Egyptian military, spurred by popular uprisings, has forced two presidents from office. The latest, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, was named deputy prime minister and defense minister in an interim Cabinet of mostly technocrats and liberals.

"The Egyptian military has inherited this sense of national belonging," said retired Gen. Talaat Mosallam, a security analyst. "The majority of Egyptians feel the military watches their back, the thing they can lean and depend on when facing anything, or any authority, including the presidency or the police. It's the sanctuary for the Egyptian citizen."

Whereas students and the rich might seek deferments from compulsory service, enlisting is often a poor man's escape from village life. It instills a sense of loyalty he will carry beyond his days in uniform.

TIMELINE: Revolution in Egypt

The army is so revered that many conveniently overlook its transgressions. Two years ago, protesters filled the streets against repressive and inept military rule that followed the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But today soldiers are handed flowers through barbed wire.

At least to a degree, the army has learned from that experience. This time it quickly installed respected jurist Adly Mahmoud Mansour as interim president and appointed a liberal economist as prime minister and Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and opposition leader, as vice president for foreign affairs.

Those moves, crucial for assuring international investors that Egypt was on the mend, attracted $12 billion in aid from Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia. They also suggest that despite tanks and bayonets in the streets, the generals do not want to be the public face of power. Egypt's youth movements, which organized millions of protesters against Morsi, are restive and prone to act against any stripe of authoritarianism.

Egypt's independence was born of a 1952 coup against the British led by a brash colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was followed by a succession of military men who ruled under the artifice of democracy: Anwar Sadat, assassinated in 1981 after making peace with Israel, and Mubarak, an officer from the Nile Delta who grew aloof during his three decades in power.

In the meantime, the peace agreement with Israel kept the military mostly in its barracks: It has not waged a foreign war since joining the U.S.-led coalition against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1991. It has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid. And its business interests, a parallel economy run by retired and active duty officers, expanded.

Morsi, an Islamist with no army pedigree, became the nation's first freely elected president last year. He and his Muslim Brotherhood movement had been persecuted by the state for years. But the president's hubris led him to miscalculate that he could sway the army's elite, including Gen. Sisi, the armed forces commander he appointed. A combustible mix of bluster and political naivete, Morsi was doomed by not calming widening economic despair and political upheaval.

"The president was in complete denial," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Atty.

Sisi, a charismatic former head of military intelligence with ties to the U.S., had resisted moving against Morsi for months. But Morsi repeatedly rebuffed the generals' demands to form a coalition government and amend the Islamist-drafted constitution.

Egypt was slipping toward what the army considered a probable civil war. Attacks between pro- and anti-Morsi camps were intensifying while the army was battling Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and along the Suez Canal. Morsi added to Sisi's concerns over national security when he tacitly supported clerics' calls for Egyptian men to join rebel fighters in Syria.

The president's mishandling of the economy was also jeopardizing the military's business interests, which include enterprises involving televisions, cigarettes, olive oil, fertilizers, bread, underwear, contracting and rodent control. Analysts suggest that military-run businesses, which developed over the years as the army was granted a wide degree of autonomy, account for at least 10% of the economy.

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