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Egyptian military in historical perspective

Published Feb 28, 2011 9:41 PM

A great deal has been written about the role of the Egyptian military with regard to the momentous mass struggle to topple the U.S.-backed president, Hosni Mubarak. During the 18 days after Jan. 25, the big question was, would the high command defend Mubarak? If so, would they then order the soldiers to attack the masses?

The people formulated a classic strategy of fraternizing with the soldiers and lower officers on the scene at Liberation Square. They called it “hug a soldier.” Numerous photos appeared of soldiers being embraced by demonstrators, of soldiers showing solidarity with the crowds and waving Egyptian flags in solidarity from the turrets of their tanks.

In the end the troops never fired on the people. In all likelihood, they were never given that order. And had they been given the order, it was not known whether the soldiers would have carried it out.

In any case, they did not. The slogan, “The army and the people are one,” was repeated over and over during the struggle. Now that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has assumed power in the country, the question of what slogan the revolution should adopt in order to influence the army is of decisive importance.

Military is a reflection of class society

The military in any society is a reflection of its class structure. In today’s Egypt there is a high command that is allied with civilian big business and has grown rich by building business empires. This high command also looks after the military and business interests of its imperialist masters in the U.S. There are lower officers of middle-class origin, and then there is the mass of the soldiers, who have been conscripted and are composed primarily of workers and peasants.

Thus, the structure of the military reflects a society based not only upon internal class antagonisms between the exploited and the exploiters, but between imperialism and the oppressed masses of Egypt.

Under such conditions, a slogan that is more reflective of class reality inside the military would be: “The soldiers and the people are one.”

Egyptian military overthrew feudalism

and colonialism

The Egyptian military as an institution has historically had a great deal of prestige among the anti-colonial Egyptian population. The slogan “The army and the people are one” represents a carry-over of that prestige from a previous era, when the Egyptian military was allied with the anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist forces of the world and also with the socialist camp.

During that period the military stood as a bulwark in the struggle against aggression by the Israeli Zionist settler state and against the imperialist domination of Egypt. The military and the military government were led by rebellious middle-class officers who in July 1952 overthrew the high command, which had been in the service of British imperialism. The objective of the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, was to rid the country of colonial domination and launch national development to overcome poverty and economic underdevelopment.

The USSR and Egyptian military

Soon after the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the Soviet Union and the socialist camp came to the aid of Egypt at crucial moments. This aid from the socialist camp evoked hostility from the imperialist camp headed by Washington.

After the overthrow of the feudal monarchy of King Farouk, a British puppet, by the Free Officers, pressure began to build to expel the British occupation forces. Israel then began menacing the Egyptian revolution. In 1955 the socialist Czechoslovakian People’s Republic sent arms to Egypt.

The imperialists countered that same year by forming a military alliance called the Baghdad Pact. It consisted of Britain, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under feudal monarch King Faisal, Turkey — a staunch member of NATO at that time — and Pakistan, which was under a pro-Western puppet military regime. This was all done at the instigation of the Eisenhower administration in the U.S. and was aimed at both the USSR and the socialist camp. Egypt was expected to join. When Nasser and the Egyptian military refused, the alliance, officially called CENTO for Central Treaty Organization, turned against the Egyptian revolution.

Having kicked out the colonialists, Egypt needed to modernize by building a high dam at Aswan in order to regulate the water of the Nile River, control flooding and generate electricity. U.S. imperialism got the funding for the construction blocked, as retaliation for Egypt’s relations with the USSR. President Nasser then seized the British-run Suez Canal and declared his intention to use the revenue to build the Aswan Dam.

The Suez Canal, one of the most strategic waterways in the world, had been built in 10 years using Egyptian forced labor. Thousands of Egyptian workers died before it opened in 1869. While it was built by a French company, the British seized control of it in 1888. British troops guarded it — and the revenues from it — until 1956.

In retaliation for the nationalization of the canal, Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. The U.S. did not support the invasion, for tactical reasons of its own, and the USSR threatened London and Paris with rockets. All three invading countries pulled back.

The USSR helped the Egyptian army rebuild its military forces after the invasion. During the 1960s the Soviet Union supplied the Egyptian military with advanced MiG-21 fighter planes, SA-2 SAM surface-to-air missiles, T-54 tanks and other military equipment. The USSR and the German Democratic Republic supplied military technicians and trainers.

The USSR opened its military schools to provide training to an entire generation of military officers, including Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. By the 1970s, 20,000 military advisers from the USSR and other socialist countries were in Egypt.

Soviet equipment was used in the June War of 1967, when the Israelis launched their sneak attack and occupied the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Soviet military equipment was used during the 1973 October war, when the Egyptian military inflicted the greatest losses on the Israeli government. Israel was only saved from defeat by the massive intervention of a U.S. airlift of supplies.

Soviet economic aid to Egypt

The alignment of Egypt with the USSR was not only military. The USSR funded the building of the Aswan High Dam. It gave long-term credits to Egypt for a number of projects, including construction of the Hulwan Iron and Steel Works, agricultural machinery, irrigation technology and technical support for the development of desert lands.

It helped in the electrification of the countryside and the development of phosphorus production and phosphorus-based fertilizers, as well as aluminum production. In 1971 the two countries signed a long-term Treaty of Friendship.

Egypt’s policy under the military leadership headed by Nasser was aligned with the anti-colonial camp. Nasser was at the historic Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, along with other anti-colonialist leaders such as Sukarno of Indonesia, Zhou Enlai of the People’s Republic of China and Jawaharlal Nehru of India.

Nasser was a founder of the Organization of African Unity, along with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and other African leaders.

Thus the progressive reputation of the Egyptian military was forged when it was aligned with the anti-imperialist camp and had strong military and economic relations with the socialist camp.

Sadat changes camps, from anti-colonial to pro-imperialist

But the Egyptian leadership under Anwar Sadat, who took over when Nasser died in 1970, shifted away from the anti-imperialist camp after the 1973 war. Under pressure of the U.S.-backed Israeli military, Sadat took Egypt into the imperialist camp. He expelled all Soviet advisers. In 1978 he broke ranks with the Palestinians and the Arab world and went to Israel for an official state visit. In 1979 he signed the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty.

From then on, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in military aid. The Egyptian military was then retrained by the U.S. on F-4 and F-16 jet fighters, I-Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, C-130 transports, attack helicopters and M60 tanks, and it set up co-production of Abrams tanks. In 1984 some $1.8 billion in annual aid was initiated on a grant basis by the Pentagon.

The early leaders of the Egyptian revolution, during the period of Nasser, nationalized much of the economy, most of which had previously been owned by British imperialism. They blended state capitalism with forms of economic planning implanted from the socialist camp and set up five-year plans and so forth.

Whereas nationalized industry under the military in the Nasser period was used for national development, this was converted under the Sadat regime, and later under Mubarak, into a method of private enrichment of the military aristocracy and their business cohorts, while giving protection to imperialist interests.

Whereas the generation of officers under Nasser overthrew the pro-British imperialist high command, the Sadat/Mubarak generation converted the military officers into a corrupt, pro-U.S. imperialist corps who have sold out the country and who rule over a 500,000-person army of workers and peasants in uniform.

The class contradictions inherent in this military structure will inevitably come to the fore and become a decisive question for the Egyptian revolution.