The approaching Pesach recalls that Israel was intractably linked to domestic Egyptian politics until divine intervention. Thousands of years later Egyptian domestic politics continues to impact on Israeli’s national security. This once relied upon Israel-Egypt diplomatic and military relations; but now it depends more on vacillating Egyptian civil-military relations.

Hello – Goodbye – Hello

In August 2012 Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced the retirement of the country’s top five officers from military service. Morsi achieved a symbolic victory in removing long-serving members of the former Mubarak regime from their military posts; however the military had its own reasons for going along with the moves; reasons that are intended to increase, not reduce, the military’s influence over the civilian government.

Even with the changes Morsi is unlikely to exercise unencumbered authority any time soon; as the country prepares for a parliamentary election in April; and as junior officers jostle for more senior roles and positions.

The military in the last decade of Mubarak’s rule grappled with internal tensions due to younger officers’ frustrations over a lack of opportunity for promotion. When the air and naval chiefs along with the air defense chief were retired from military service and given top civilian positions; it was the deputies of the promoted commanders that took over the posts vacated by their superiors; second-tier commanders took over from the retired officers and now their juniors are displaying signs of discontent.

It is unlikely that the president’s decision to retire these officers was a unilateral one, and likely it was made in cooperation with the ambitious younger members of the armed forces to nudge out the aging military leadership. Subordinates charged that the professionalism of the military as an institution is harmed when the normal flow of promotions is disrupted and aging generals remain at the helm for too long.

Nevertheless it was a show of presidential power; given that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had heavily circumscribed Morsi’s powers just before the June presidential election. Clearly the military continues to struggle to secure its influence in the new political system. The president is no longer drawn from the armed forces, which has been the case in Egypt since Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser established the modern Egyptian republic through a military coup in 1952.

The balance of power between the president and the military remains uneasy.Egypt’s second- and third-tier commanders and the general staff officer corps have for some time been displeased with the top brass’s refusal to relinquish posts and allow those below a chance at promotion. Indeed, resentment reached an all-time high after the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak and has not subsided.

The internal schisms have received little attention amid the larger struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood for control of Egypt, but the forced retirements, promotions and reassignments suggest that an internal restructuring within the military is also under way.

The Revolving Door

The retirements and promotions come at a time when the military is searching for a new arrangement that will preserve its authority now that the country has moved away from the single-party model to a multi-party one with competitive elections. The military has always wanted to resume ruling from behind the scenes and leave day-to-day matters of governance to civil authorities, and the new civilian assignments for the now-retired generals will likely be the conduit through which the defense establishment maintains its oversight of the political system.

Defense Minister and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Annan were made advisers to the president. In addition the former air force chief became the head of military production. Likewise, the former naval chief was named head of the Suez Canal Authority, an important revenue-generating asset for the country, and the former air defense chief was named chairman of the Arab Organization for Industrialization, a military development group.

Under this arrangement, the military can go back to operating key state institutions through retired commanders, as was the case under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. These appointments show that the defense establishment will be able to continue to dominate the country’s economic sector.

Unlike previous times, however, these commanders will be working with a president whose background is in the Muslim Brotherhood, not the military. Since Mubarak’s ouster and the beginning of Egypt’s political transition, the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to assert its power have repeatedly been countermanded by the military. Under the new arrangement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains powerful, but its composition and leadership have changed.

More Pattern than Chance

For Israel this is significant as Israel relies on long standing daily working relations with specific Egyptian officers and Egyptian stability. Egyptian military institutional memory will lapse with internal struggles for roles and promotions. Being responsible for liaison with Israel and preventing militant incursions and weapon flows into Sinai are not prestigious positions for fast track promotions.

The forthcoming April parliamentary elections could produce a worse case scenario of an Islamic Parliament and a Muslim Brotherhood President both engaging with the military in a power struggle as the third side of the political Pyramid; and Egypt sliding into instability.

The significance is that Israeli national security is increasingly dependent on Egyptian civil-military relations between the President and the military, between the Parliament and the military and on internal military power struggles; rather than just Israel-Egypt diplomatic and military relations. 

Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv.