US embassy cables: Egyptian army’s in decline, Gamal grows stronger
S E C R E T CAIRO 002091
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ELA AND INR/NESA OSD FOR AGUIRRE JCS FOR YODER
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/23/2028
TAGS: PARM, PGOV, ECON, EG
SUBJECT: ACADEMICS SEE THE MILITARY IN DECLINE, BUT RETAINING STRONG INFLUENCE
REF: A. CAIRO 1851 B. CAIRO 530 C. CAIRO 524 D. 07 CAIRO 1417
Classified By: DCM Matthew Tueller for reason 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Summary: Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises. Regarding succession, analysts highlight the armed forces’ uneasiness with Gamal Mubarak, but largely agree that the military would support Gamal if President Mubarak resigns and installs him in the presidency, a scenario we view as unlikely. One professor opined that since 2003, the regime has tried to strengthen the economic elite close to Gamal at the expense of the military in an effort to weaken potential military opposition to Gamal’s path to the presidency. Other analysts believe the regime is trying to co-opt the military through patronage into accepting Gamal and that despite tensions between the military and business, their relationship remains cooperative. End summary.
An Institution in Decline
2. (C) A series of recent conversations with academics and other civilian analysts reveals their sense that while Egypt’s military is in decline, it nevertheless remains a powerful institution. (Note: These academics’ expertise in Egyptian politics and willingness to comment on the sensitive issue of the military’s current role makes them valuable interlocutors for us. End note.) XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that the military reached its peak of influence in the late 1980’s before the ouster of the recently deceased former Defense Minister Abu Ghazalah, who was dismissed because of his growing political popularity. He asserted that since 1989, the MOD’s influence in Egyptian society has been gradually waning, and the privileged social position of its elite members has been in decline as society’s respect for the military fades. XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that military salaries have fallen far below what is available in the private sector, and that a military career is no longer an attractive option for ambitious young people who aspire to join the new business elite instead.
3. (S) XXXXXXXXXXXX opined that before the 1967 war, military officers were “spoiled,” and constituted a social elite. Following the military’s poor performance in the 1967 war, he said, officers began a descent out of the upper ranks of society that accelerated after Abu Ghazalah’s ouster in 1989. Since Abu Ghazalah, XXXXXXXXXXXX noted, the regime has not allowed any charismatic figures to reach the senior ranks. “(Defense Minister) Tantawi looks like a bureaucrat,” he joked. XXXXXXXXXXXX described the mid-level officer corps as generally disgruntled, and said that one can hear mid-level officers at MOD clubs around Cairo openly expressing disdain for Tantawi. These officers refer to Tantawi as “Mubarak’s poodle,” he said, and complain that “this incompetent Defense Minister” who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is “running the military into the ground.” He opined that a culture of blind obedience pervades the MOD where the sole criteria for promotion is loyalty, and that the MOD leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being “too competent” and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime.
4. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX believes that the government’s increasing opposition to dialogue with academia is symptomatic of its social and intellectual decline. He said that up until 6 years ago, the MOD had assigned a military representative to the Al-Ahram Center to participate in academic discussions; subsequently, the MOD jailed the representative because his views were becoming too independent, and has not sent a replacement to the center. He claimed that Tantawi has become increasingly intolerant of intellectual freedom XXXXXXXXXXXX. In his view, Tantawi has made clear that the military is “off-limits” as a subject for academic research, and that the MOD will not tolerate independent thought within its own ranks.
… But Still Retaining Economic Clout For Now
5. (C) Although analysts see a small number of regime and business elites exercising increasing political and economic control over the country, they acknowledge the military’s strong influence in Egypt’s economy. XXXXXXXXXXXX opined that the regime gives the six businessmen in the cabinet carte blanche to pursue commercial activities, but that the defense minister can put a hold on any contract for “security concerns.” Contacts told us that military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries. XXXXXXXXXXXX pointed out that military companies built the modern road to the Ain Souknah Red Sea resorts 90 minutes from Cairo and Cairo University’s new annex. He noted the large amounts of land owned by the military in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea coast, speculating that such property is a “fringe benefit” in exchange for the military ensuring regime stability and security. (Comment: We see the military’s role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets. End comment.)
6. (C) Most analysts agreed that the military views the GOE’s privatization efforts as a threat to its economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms. XXXXXXXXXXXX speculated that privatization has forced military-owned companies to improve the quality of their work, specifically in the hotel industry, to compete with private firms and attract critical foreign investment. XXXXXXXXXXXX predicted that the growing power of the economic elite at the military’s expense is inevitable as economic necessity drives the government to maintain its economic reform policies in order to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). He said that FDI is essential to the government’s plans to maintain economic growth and political stability.
Influence in the Bureaucracy and Civil Society
7. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX pointed to a “concerted effort” from the “top of the regime” to penetrate the civilian bureaucracy with retired senior military officers. He highlighted retired officers filling top civilian jobs, such as governors, and chief of staff positions and other senior slots at the Information, Transportation and Education ministries. Other contacts noted their anecdotal experience with military officers running civil society organizations and charities. XXXXXXXXXXXX remarked that a literacy campaign XXXXXXXXXXXX recently hired a retired military officer to run its operations. He told us that XXXXXXXXXXXX charitable society XXXXXXXXXXXX recently hired a retired general as its director, believing that the general’s competence, experience with bureaucracies, and network of colleagues and contacts in the ministries would serve the charity well.
The Military and Succession
8. (C) Contacts agree that presidential son Gamal Mubarak’s power base is centered in the business community, not with the military. XXXXXXXXXXXX said officers told him recently that the military does not support Gamal and if Mubarak died in office, the military would seize power rather than allow Gamal to succeed his father. However, analysts agreed that the military would allow Gamal to take power through an election if President Mubarak blessed the process and effectively gave Gamal the reigns of power. XXXXXXXXXXXX opined that after Gamal became active in the NDP in 2002, the regime empowered the reformers in the 2004 cabinet to begin privatization efforts that buttressed the wealthy businessmen close to Gamal. In his estimation, the regime’s goal is to create a business-centered power base for Gamal in the NDP to compensate for his lack of military credentials. A necessary corollary to this strategy, he claimed, was for the regime to weaken the military’s economic and political power so that it cannot block Gamal’s path to the presidency.
9. (S) Comment: The military still remains a potent political and economic force. Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council fire in August (refs A and B) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail. The military helps to ensure regime stability and operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a “quasi-commercial” enterprise itself. While there are economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial. The military’s loss of some prestige is partly due to the disappearance of an imminent, external military threat following the 1979 Camp David Accords. The regime, aware of the critical role the MOD can play in presidential succession, may well be trying to co-opt the military through patronage into accepting Gamal’s path to the presidency. We agree with the analysis that senior military officers would support Gamal if Mubarak resigned and installed him in the presidency, as it is difficult to imagine opposition from these officers who depend on the president and defense minister for their jobs and material perks. In a messier succession scenario, however, it becomes more difficult to predict the military’s actions. While mid-level officers do not necessarily share their superiors’ fealty to the regime, the military’s built-in firewalls and communication breaks make it unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader. SCOBEY