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Is Egypt’s army on the people’s side?

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
When Omer Suleiman, Egypt’s now ex vice president, spoke on Friday he said two things: Mubarak is going and the army is taking over. It is not yet clear what this means.
Issue 2238a
Army vehicle in Cairo  (Pic: Socialist Worker)
Army vehicle in Cairo (Pic: Socialist Worker)

When Omer Suleiman, Egypt’s now ex vice president, spoke on Friday he said two things: Mubarak is going and the army is taking over. It is not yet clear what this means.

Army rule could mean anything from soldiers identifying with a mass movement to martial law.

I’ve been looking at what signs there are of splits in the army. There are hints that the army is under enormous pressure. People may have seen the army officer in Tahrir Square handing in his weapons and joining protesters. That indicates that part of the officer corps is peeling away.

This may be a result of key people in the army realising that they are losing the loyalty of some of their own officers.

Egypt’s army is immensely powerful. Over the course of the last 20 years, it has been knitted into a system of privilege operated by the regime.

It has a lot of privileges inherited from the Nasser era, when the army and bureaucracy ran the state.

In 1952, Nasser and the free officers were engaged in a coup that brought about the end of King Farouk’s regime. Two years later, British troops withdrew.

Up until the time of president Sadat, senior officers in the army under Nasser ruled Egypt. The state ran the show. This was a classic radical nationalist state.

In the 1970s there was a move away from state control of the economy towards the private sector, later called neoliberalism.

From that moment, a shift began to occur in the relationship of the army towards the regime. This became much clearer under Mubarak. The army itself became built into the networks of wealth and privilege—and Mubarak encouraged this.

So the army today is a big stakeholder in notionally private-sector activity. There are private companies that have a huge military component within them.


Some of the largest economic enterprises in Egypt are army enterprises, including agricultural, industrial and commercial operations. They are run by the military and directly serve military interests.

In this system, the armed forces sit alongside private capital. It’s a bit like in China. The army itself, the senior officer corps, has been a beneficiary of the growth of private capital in Egypt in the last 20 years.

What that means is that if the army is now taking control, it’s working alongside and is part of a regime that most Egyptians are still aching to get rid of.

It is true that the army is a somewhat distinct organisation from the police and state security. The police have played the main role in suppressing workers and peasants’ struggles.

But historically the army has done this—during the great food riots of 1977, the 1984 uprising in Mahalla el-Kubra and in numerous other occasions. In 1986, riot police launched an uprising and the army came in to put them down. The army is the ultimate guarantor of the rule of the capitalist class in Egypt.

The people in Tahrir Square are quite rightly chanting, “The people have brought down the regime.” But the key thing is to remember that, although the leader of the regime has gone, much of the regime still in place.

The key task now is to translate the power on the streets into power in workplaces and neighbourhoods. Self-made empowerment needs to be extended.

One reason the army has been so reluctant to take a position is that senior army officers and the police know full well that the masses are coming to settle with them.

The police in particular have been responsible for years and years of the cruellest abuse of the Egyptian people. The Mubarak regime constructed a system of torture across Egypt and many people were abused.

During the revolution, many police stations have been burned down and prisons have been emptied. Officers understand that people are coming to settle their account with the torturers.

That will only be done with forms of self-organisation. Imagine workplace committees, neighbourhood committees, truth commissions. All of these things require forms of collective organisation.

We’ve seen the streets. Now it’s time for the workplaces and neighbourhoods to play their role.


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