The military has been Egypt's most stable and powerful institution during the entirety of the Mubarak regime, but it has never been called upon to make a political decision - until now. Will its leadership side with the protesters, or will they seek a reversion to the status quo? There is some reason to believe the military could prove a positive force for change. During bilateral talks in the Pentagon, senior Egyptian military leaders assured us that their role was to defend Egypt's people and its constitution. A common refrain was that the military would even support the Muslim Brotherhood if it were to win a free and fair election. While Egypt's elections have been neither free nor fair for some time, the sentiment was clear enough -- these officers envisioned themselves as guardians of the Egyptian people -- not the regime.
Military officers share the Egyptian people's frustration with the Mubarak regime. As a Fulbright Fellow in Egypt researching the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, I interviewed active and retired military officers who expressed resentment that military courts were being used to prosecute the regime's political enemies. They were also quick to distance themselves from the Ministry of Interior and lament the brutal tactics of the Central Security Forces. They indicated that the situation was unlikely to improve under the current political leadership.
But the military was not supposed to get involved. Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak isolated the armed forces from domestic affairs to prevent prominent officers from emerging as political rivals. This isolation has made the military an infrequent but critical player in Egyptian politics. Because it enters the fray only in times of crisis, and then in a "national guard" capacity, it maintains great credibility with the Egyptian people. Ironically, by withdrawing from politics, the military now is in a position to usher in new political leadership.
However, doing so comes at personal financial risk. Senior military officers are believed to benefit handsomely from the revenues generated by military-owned corporations, private contracts with foreign companies, and post-retirement postings in the private and public sectors. General Ahmed Mohamed Shafik, former head of Civil Aviation and now Egypt's new Prime Minister, is the most prominent example. During my research in Cairo, foreign diplomats told me that Egyptian military officers regularly supplemented their incomes by receiving cash for routine military services, including Suez Canal passage. Some of those funds are believed to be held in Switzerland, where General Magdy Galal Sharawi, head of Egypt's Air Force from 2002-2008, currently serves as Ambassador. An accurate calculation of these activities is difficult to quantify, but they are systemic. We can assume that military officers are thinking about how the current crisis might affect their own livelihoods.
There is a tension between the military's interests -- maintaining its credibility by siding with the people on the one hand, and maintaining its vast economic apparatus on the other. Maintaining stability is a given, but that stability will shake if the military is seen by the protesters as siding with Mubarak's attempts to retain power. A middle solution is conceivable, where the military would not stand in the way of a transition government should it receive assurances that its affairs will remain untouched from reform. Mohamed ElBaradei has said he will reach out to the Army, and such a discussion is not hard to imagine. For the Egyptian military it will be a huge, existential break from a symbiotic relationship with President Mubarak, but that break is looking to be inevitable.
Matthew Axelrod served as the North Africa and Egypt director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2007. He held a Fulbright research fellowship in Egypt from 2007 to 2008, researching the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship.