Augustus Richard Norton on Egypt: The power of the generals is in the spotlight

Boston University international relations professor Augustus Richard Norton is an expert on the Middle East and a member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. He is the author of “Hezbollah: A Short History”.┬áHe offers the following commentary on the situation in Egypt, the role of the military, and a possible successor to Honsi Mubarak.

“The military has taken power, but in reality the military has — ever since the 1952 coup — held the balance of power in Cairo.

“The Egyptian military has always lurked in the shadows of the Egyptian regime. The levers of influence were seldom exposed to view. Yet, when senior civilian politicos, such as Osama al-Baz, reflected on the regime and its prospects for reform, they often pointed to the powerful role of the generals and vetoes they held in their back pockets. For years, as expectations grew that Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal would succeed his father, it was the military veto that thwarted him.

“Now the power of the generals is in the spotlight. There are some reasons to be optimistic: the army generally showed commendable discipline in its response to the last three weeks of demonstrations, and the demonstrators — whether intuitively or shrewdly — embraced the soldiers; the officer corp is highly professional, promotions are based on merit not connections, and no officer or soldier wishes to be seen as an oppressor of the nation that it is pledged to defend; a skilled group of oppositon figures is poised to negotiate a transition, and the Ikhwan have wisely forges concensus with the non-Islamist elements while also remaining in the background; and, the actions are misactions of the military will be in full international view.

“Nonetheless, the senior officers have a big stake in the existing system, not the least econmic interests. In retirement, many senior officers move to industries dominated by the military, and others move into the thriving private sector. But many others infiltrate the civilian branches of government. They will want to protect their perorgatives. The military leadership will prove cautious about dramatic changes, and they will be nervous about permitting a powerful civilian government to challenge their privileges, or hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. The deep suspicion of the Ikhwan will not be erased, so the generals will want to be assured that the Ikhwan (still an illegal entity) will gain no more than a marginal role in politics.

“When Presidential elections are held, you can be sure that the military will have satisfied itself that its interests will not be jeopardized. It is to early to determine who all the contenders for the Presidency will be, but it is now clear that Amre Mossa is a front runner. He is widely respected, and indeed, is a man of integrity. He was the popular Foreign Minister of Egypt, so popular that Mubarak that “promoted” him to become Secretary General of the Arab League in order to keep him well distant from Egyptian politics. But a lot may happen in a year of transition, and many secrets will be exposed, so keep your bets in your pocket for now.”

Contact Augustus Richard Norton, 617-353-7808, arn@bu.edu