The Pharaoh's General, and Mubarak's

By Alex Joffe
Monday, February 7, 2011

The general was a commoner. He rose through the ranks as a career soldier, attracting attention for his prowess and dedication. Becoming a soldier-diplomat, he fought Egypt's battles, negotiated with troublesome neighbors, and served several kings in succession. By the time the last of them faltered, he had already been promoted to the position of heir to the throne. This suited the country's most important institution, the army, which threw its support behind a man who could be trusted to preserve the throne, the realm, and the might of Egypt. The transition occurred with minimal fuss, and the general, now Pharaoh, ruled for decades.

The general was Horemheb, who after serving Akhenaten and his son Tutankhamun reigned from approximately 1319 to 1292 B.C.E. Today's Horemheb is Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, until recently minister without portfolio and head of the Egyptian general intelligence directorate (GID). Now he has been appointed Vice President, a position that has gone unfilled for 30 years. It is not a chance appointment.

Egypt would not exist without the army. In antiquity, military force accomplished the unification of the country, and the leader assumed the title of a god on earth. From then on, only the combination of military force and state power could hold together the long and narrow Nile Valley. Although Egypt was nominally the "gift of the Nile," the Nile was an unreliable provider, its annual floods ranging from sufficient to catastrophically inadequate. The state, backed by the army, fed the people in exchange for worshipful obedience.

By and large, the strategy worked: Egypt might be stable for centuries before periodically collapsing from prolonged droughts and famines, foreign invasions, or local uprisings. Equally inevitable were cycles of reunification under firm military leadership. This same praetorian pattern has persisted into the modern world, and it is not unique to Egypt, but it has also shown signs of breaking down—most sensationally at the moment in Egypt itself, marked as that country is by endemic corruption, severe economic deprivation, and a huge and increasingly restive population. 

Enter Omar Suleiman, born in Qena in 1936. Like Hosni Mubarak, the president he serves, Suleiman attended the Egyptian Military Academy in Cairo and then the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. Unlike Mubarak, who would command the air force in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Suleiman was an infantryman (if also a thoughtful one, earning two degrees in political science). He fought in Yemen and against Israel in 1967 and 1973, though in exactly what role is unclear. After Anwar Sadat concluded Egypt's historic 1978–79 peace treaty with Israel, and realigned Egypt with the U.S., Suleiman received training in special-forces operations at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1991 he became head of military intelligence and in 1993 took over the GID. His name became public only in 2000.

The GID is Egypt's FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security rolled into one. As the eyes and ears of Egypt, Suleiman has handled sensitive problems both public and private, from negotiating with Hamas and Israel in connection with the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit to dealing with terror suspects handed over by the CIA for interrogation. (Some did not survive the experience.) He is reported to be absolutely dedicated to fighting Islamic radicals in the Middle East—and to maintaining Egypt's preeminence in the Arab world.

As both a cabinet minister and a military officer, Suleiman must also look after the interests of the army. Central as ever, that institution has over 450,000 regular soldiers and about another half-million reservists, along with similar numbers of paramilitary forces and at least a quarter-million security personnel. More than a military institution, it is a military-industrial complex, manufacturing everything from tanks and small arms to fire extinguishers and pharmaceuticals in dozens of industrial plants. Together, the army and the complex have built and continued to maintain entire cities, as well as vast irrigation and reclamation projects. All this, together with a permanently revolving door for retired officers, has created deep interrelationships between the higher military echelons and the national economy.

If Suleiman survives the inevitable Islamist challenge, he may follow the path of his ancient predecessor in a number of ways. Horemheb, even as he rolled back Akhenaten's religious reforms, curbed abuses of state authority in order to quell unrest. The "Edict of Horemheb" commemorates his domestic reforms, some of which may even have been genuine. Suleiman, too, will have to move quickly to control escalating political violence, so far unleashed mostly by "supporters" of the outgoing Mubarak regime. More crucially, he faces the eternal conundrum of any nation that requires the military to be both guardian and provider: the army must be appeased.

Since the Camp David Accords of the late 1970s, the Egyptian army has been radically transformed. Formerly a Soviet-style force, immense, shambling, though deadly, it has been turned into an American-style military whose American-trained officer corps operates in accordance with American military doctrines. But who is the putative enemy against whom today's army, deadlier and more professional than ever, has targeted its force structure and just about all of its military planning? Heavy tanks may occasionally be suited for securing Egypt's cities, but are better employed against another armored force. So, too, with the army's enormous fleet of helicopter gunships and F-16s, and its missile frigates. These are hardly aimed at threats emanating from Libya or Sudan, much less al-Qaeda. Should the army become radicalized, or swung over to the Islamist side, the implications for Israel would be ominous indeed. 

The example of the Turkish army is sobering. As the constitutional guardian of the secular Kemalist state, the army staged three coups since 1960. Now it is hobbled by legal restrictions demanded by the European Union and put in place by the Islamist AKP party, hollowed out from within by Islamist infiltration of the officer corps, and terrified by patently absurd allegations of having engaged in vast conspiracies against the state. Hundreds of Turkish officers have been arrested, and countless others silenced.

For the moment, $1.3 billion annually in American military aid may provide enough incentive for the Egyptian military to maintain the peace treaty with Israel. But current negotiations for an interim government and forthcoming presidential elections will almost certainly bring the Muslim Brotherhood out of the shadows and into legitimate politics. Inevitably, the army will gauge the political winds and act accordingly.

An institution that has been Egypt's most important for 5,000 years is likely to remain so. Whether the master spy Omar Suleiman will be able, like his pharaonic predecessors, to hold back chaos, not to speak of effectuating a transition to representative democracy, remains to be seen. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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