from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

A Faustian Pact: Generals as Democrats

July 26, 2013

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Egypt

This article was originally published here in the New York Times on July 25, 2013.

The luxurious officers’ club of Egypt’s elite Republican Guard sits near downtown Cairo, its pool and patios surrounded by high walls with reliefs and paintings lauding Egypt’s military history, going back to the pharaohs. Where a huge poster of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak once stood, a new one declares: “The Army. The People. One Hand.”

The slogan echoes chants heard in Tahrir Square in 2011, when the army chose not to fire on demonstrators, and again three weeks ago, when the army deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Now Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s powerful defense minister, is putting it to the test by calling on Egyptians to return to the streets Friday to support the armed forces’ efforts to suppress postcoup violence that has claimed some 170 lives.

In fact, millions of Egyptians welcomed the coup at the time, even as they claimed to want democracy, and they apparently do not see the tension between these positions. Their faith in the military is probably misplaced, but it can be explained by six decades of Egyptian hopes and disappointments, and the desperation that marks Egypt’s politics today.

Since a 1952 coup ousted the corrupt, British-dominated King Farouk, the armed forces have been Egypt’s state builder, liberator and savior. That was true when its troops crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 in a war that ultimately ended with the Sinai Peninsula returned from Israeli control.

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