Inside Egypt's Army, a Rift Along Generational Lines

Monday, February 07, 2011 - 12:00 PM

An Egyptian army Captain identified as Ihab Fathi holds the national flag while being carried by demonstrators during a protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 31, 2011. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

As the tides of democracy have swirled in Egypt over the past 14 days, many questions have been raised over what the role of the nation's Army will be as Egypt transitions out of a three decade long era of autocratic rule. Widely credited with providing some semblance of order amid the chaos of the last two weeks, Egypt's Army has been portrayed as deeply respected and popular in a country with few credible institutions.

At numerous times throughout Egypt's revolution, the anti-government protesters and the Army have declared their affections for each other. However, deep inside this hallowed institution, a more complicated picture emerges. A significant divide along generational lines in Egypt's military threatens to rankle the evolving nation's future stability.

"It's not a monolith," Elisabeth Bumiller, national affairs correspondent for The New York Times, told The Takeaway's John Hockenberry in an exclusive interview on the Wave of Change podcast. In an article in Saturday's Times, Bumiller described an Egyptian military that is cozy with embattled President Hosni Mubarak at its top levels, while younger, mid-level officers tend to be contemptuous of their superiors and favor the anti-government demonstrators.

"There is a bit of a split between the senior generals, who are the ones who talk to the Pentagon, and the mid-level officer corps, who despise the generals, or certainly view them as incompetent and more focused on their loyalty to Hosni Mubarak," Bumiller said. The U.S. has long been aware of the rift within the military, according to diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The New York Times. Bumiller said that while disenchantment with senior officers is commonplace in many armies, this divide should give the U.S. pause when Egypt's Army, "which hinges the stability of the country, is not entirely unified."

The rift also throws the U.S.'s continuing influence over Egypt into jeopardy, said Bumiller. The U.S.'s closest Arab ally, Egypt receives $1.3 billion a year in military aid, and the two countries' militaries have enjoyed a close relationship for decades. Many senior Egyptian officers have trained in the U.S. "Despite all of this," said Bumiller, Egypt's Army "is not going to listen to the United States telling it what to do."

Bumiller speculated the U.S. has the most influence over the highest levels of the military, in particular with one of the most hated officers in Egypt. Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, Egypt's most powerful defense minister, "is considered incompetent by these junior officers," according to the diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, said Bumiller.

Even if the Army can reconcile the divide within its ranks, the real question is what role it will play in Egyptian society once Hosni Mubarak leaves office, said Bumiller. Egypt has had a military leader for over sixty years, and as the BBC's Magdi Abulhadi told Wave of Change last week, the Egyptian people don't seem open to another president in a long line of "military men in civilian clothes who find democracy a difficult thing to deal with."

"Their own survival is at stake here," Bumiller pointed out. As she reported over the weekend, the Army runs a "parallel economy" that operates businesses in industries as varied as food production and consumer electronics, and controls a significant portion of the Egyptian economy. 

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