News / Middle East

Egypt's Military Takes Charge Facing Demands for Democratization

Egypt's Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi attends a meeting of the military supreme council, February 10, 2011
Egypt's Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi attends a meeting of the military supreme council, February 10, 2011

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Nico Colombant

The military is now in charge in Egypt after the so-called Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces took power Friday, ending the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Analysts say it remains to be seen whether the military leaders will carry out the transition to democracy protestors have been demanding.

A fellow with the Washington-based German Marshall Fund and an Egypt expert, Ian Lesser, said what happened Friday was both a military coup amid a people power movement, but not a real coup.

"A coup in the sense that obviously there were factions within the military who might have wanted a slightly different outcome, not a coup in the sense that the military has been in control in Egypt for a very long time," he said.  "So yes, I think there was something of a coup within the ranks of the military but not a military takeover in the sense that it replaced a civilian power."

Members in the Supreme Council include two-decade military chief and Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and the former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, previously installed as vice president during the nearly three week protests.

The armed forces chief of staff Sami Hafez Anan, the air force chief Air Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, the chief of the navy Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish and the commander of air defense Abd El-Aziz Seif-Eldeein are also on the council.

The military body issued a statement Friday saying it was committed to shepherding the full range of democratic reforms protesters have been calling for.

Paul Beran from the Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies said there appear to have been lots of divergences within the military in recent days, which Tantawi will have to settle.

"We know that there have been problems and disturbances in the ranks during this period between the general staff, the officer corps, and the enlisted and we can only assume that those are going to continue," Beran said.

Egypt’s military is one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. military aid, and Beran said this has created a close relationship between U.S. and Egyptian military officials.

"They understand that this relationship has certain strengths and weaknesses and certainly they want to keep a strong relationship with the U.S. military and the U.S. political structure," he said. "So, I think we can imagine that some of the ideas in terms that the United States is bringing up, whether it is President Obama or the military, I think it is going to be taken very seriously."

Analysts say threats to stop U.S. military aid may have played a role in recent developments.

Egyptian protesters are demanding lifting long-standing emergency rule, allowing more political parties and ensuring free and fair elections. They also want a reform of Egypt’s military itself.

Robert Danin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, said it is unclear whether the top echelons of the military, who benefited under former President Mubarak in terms of both power and economic benefits, will be able to change themselves.

"When it actually comes time for there to be a real transparency introduced, and real civilian oversight of the military, how are they going to react? And so they may indeed recognize that they have to go with the new order, but one question is whether or not they really understand what that means," Danin said. "General Tantawi comes from the same school as former General Mubarak, and one thing we saw, have seen, over the last two weeks is that General [President] Mubarak just did not understand what was happening in Tahrir Square."

Danin said it also remains to be seen whether there will be a need for what he calls "a second people power revolution" to ensure the military does go along fully with the democratic aspirations of the protesters.

He said, however, he believes the longer the military transition takes, the better it may be to have a truly civilian-led democratic system emerge.

Elections are scheduled for September, but discussions are currently taking place within Egypt’s emerging political class and the military for that date to be moved forward or later.

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