Egypt's crisis today: The deep power of the generals

Egypt's crisis today: The deep power of the generals
Politics: The current crisis in Egypt extends beyond the battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and Sisi's supporters, to a power contest amid the military elite, says Abdallah Hendawy.
3 min read
15 May, 2015
The 1952 Egyptian revolution brought the military generals to power [Getty]
In Egypt, the totalitarian ruling elite is fighting for survival at the expense of the people's aspirations for increased political participation and social justice.

To understand what is happening we have to look at the 1952 upheaval that profoundly distorted the social and political order in Egypt.

The 1952 "revolution" was meant to promote social justice and equality, but the military generals took control of the political sphere and the exact opposite happened. Economic and social conditions have been deteriorating ever since.

The sociopolitical drawbacks of the 1952 revolution are countless and pervasive. The main feature was the transformation of the ruling elite from feudalist royalists to powerful military generals.

The 1952 military junta established an order that created an authoritarian sociopolitical structure, and established shared values of governance among its members and agencies. The generals tightened their iron grip over state institutions to strengthen their hold on the country.

Members of the key state authorities such as law making, law enforcement and judiciary fell under the control of the generals. Those who showed they were faithful to the new regime were welcomed and rewarded. Those who did not faced being charged with treason, which carried the death penalty.

Since President Nasser's time (1956-1970), military generals have dominated the ruling elite.

However, towards the end of the 20th century, demands for political and economic reform grew, as the global evolution of mass communication pushed forward liberal democratic values.

     The 1952 military junta established an order that created an authoritarian sociopolitical structure.
The rigid military ruling elite needed to adjust to avoid disintegration and isolation. 

However, it chose instead to add new segments to its elite such as senior judges, police officers and wealthy business tycoons.

It hoped to strengthen its grip on ground instead of putting forward actual reforms.

The new segments blended quickly into this meticulous structure. However, they wanted their children to inherit their jobs. Career inheritance was seen as both a reward from the regime for loyalty, and a good way to reproduce regime loyalists and exclude strangers who could disturb the system.

Career inheritance became customary in all government sectors including the judiciary, military, police, and foreign service. Corruption, nepotism, and injustice become the norm for institutions that systematically marginalised large segments of the population.

This system worked well until the influence of business owners and the police over state institutions grew excessively. Their power exceeded the limits set by Gamal Mubarak, son of then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. With his father's support, Gamal had given the elites a wide range of powers to handle sensitive state issues at the expense of the military.

During Mubarak's time, the police gained more influence than any other institution, to such an extent Egypt was seen more as a police state than a military dictatorship.

Powerful generals who - had Gamal Mubarak succeeded his father - would have been replaced by increasingly powerful business tycoons and police officials began to feel threatened.

However, the January 25 revolution turned things in favour of the senior generals, who did not hesitate to throw Mubarak out with his supporters.

While the masses in the street celebrated Mubarak's fall, the generals were opening bottles of halal champagne to celebrate the phasing out of their annoying competitors from the ruling elite. But this could have been their biggest pitfall. They did not win, and perhaps they never will.

Egypt's current turmoil is not about the fight between the Muslim Brotherhood and President Sisi's supporters. That fight might be the smallest symptom of all.

Remnants of Mubarak's businesses tycoons and former police officers who do not support Sisi, plus the likelihood that Sisi himself is entirely supported by the generals, means the battle is far larger than between two or three political groups.

Although January 25 was undeniably a genuine uprising after decades of marginalisation, autocracy and social injustice, it was - in a parallel world - a tug of war between powerful ruling elites over power assumption. 

The 1952 revolution/coup fundamentally changed Egypt's social and political order, because it smashed the royalist elite.

In 2011, however, Egyptians were barely able to change the names and figures of the old regime.