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Mubarak’s military vital to free elections

ANALYSIS: 

Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spent three decades in office hand-picking his military generals on the basis of absolute loyalty to his regime, not to any Islamic or democracy movement, analysts on one of the world's largest armies say.

The question is can the draftee 450,000-strong force now in charge, led by generals who flourished financially under Mr. Mubarak's' largesse, make a clean break with the past and put Cairo on a path to free elections.

"The military is a gigantic organization there that is essentially connected to Mubarak himself," said Richard Herrmann, an international security professor at Ohio State University who has written extensively on the 1979 Iranian revolution.

"I think the separation between the military and the regime has been exaggerated," Mr. Herrmann said. "They can, of course, separate themselves from it as they move forward. But the military has been the regime there since the 1950s. The question is whether the military will do more than just push out the latest generals and actually open society to some sort of more broad-based participation."

A key test, he said, is whether the military itself relinquishes some powers to a transition committee - something that failed to happen in Iran, leading to a coup by the mullahs and their military and civilian followers. Another test is whether officers will give up their lucrative business ties in the defense industry - something a truly civilian government likely would not allow.

"Right now, all we have are generals who are reacting to the popular bend," he said.

In 1975, Mr. Mubarak, a high-ranking air force general, was tapped by President Anwar Sadat as vice president precisely because he knew the military and how to control it. He succeeded to the presidency in 1981 after Muslim Brotherhood-linked officers assassinated Sadat.

Mr. Mubarak and the general intelligence service spent a good amount of time spying on the ranks to ensure up-and-coming officers were not enticed to join the outlawed Brotherhood or other hard-line Islamic groups.

"Mubarak is a control freak," said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who has written two books on Egypt and lived in the country from 2000 to 2002 when he was director of the American Research Center there.

"Sadat needed someone who could control the military," Mr. Springborg said. "He needed someone who was a hands-on guy who monitored everything that went on, especially promotions, awards and so on. Mubarak stood up in that military as the guy who kept track of every little thing. That has been how he runs the country since that time. He monitors all appointments down to the colonel level. He's the maestro of personal control."

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, a former general who announced Mr. Mubarak's resignation on Friday, paid special attention to the officer corps as the country's intelligence chief.

"Gen. Suleiman's job was to weed them out," Mr. Springborg said. "That was one of his major responsibilities as head of general intelligence was to monitor the military. And so Islamists were the biggest threat, so they received the most attention."

Mr. Springborg saw Mr. Mubarak's controlling nature firsthand. Egyptian officers attending the postgraduate school had to follow strict rules on outside contacts.

"They are very carefully monitored by general intelligence," the professor said. "They are not supposed to have uncontrolled communications between themselves and foreigners. They need to report any attempt to communicate with them."

Graeme Bannerman, a former State Department analyst on Egypt who lobbied for Cairo in Washington until a few years ago, said Sadat's assassination by rogue Islamic military officers triggered a "close monitoring of these issues."

"The military is clearly geared to make sure that no extremist groups take over and there's stability in the country," said Mr. Bannerman, an analyst at the Middle East Institute. "Extremist groups mean instability, which works against everything the military stands for."

He said the U.S. trains and educates more than 1,000 Egyptian military personnel each year.

"They get training in human rights, the law and order," he said. "It's clearly an institution that is more committed to a worldview that the American Army has than any other institution in Egypt.

"Are they committed to keeping the country stable and not extreme? Absolutely," he said. "The Egyptian military first and foremost are Egyptian nationalists. They have good relationships with our military. They will listen to our military. They will listen to our political leaders. But they will only act in what they think is the Egyptian national interest. These are not people who are moved to rash actions."

Mr. Bannerman said Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the armed forces top officer, appears flexible enough to realize that the military will have to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group banned by Mr. Mubarak.

He noted that Gen. Suleiman, who spent a career suppressing the Brotherhood, was seen on TV last week meeting with them.

"Both of them sat down at the table to talk to each other because there is a true commitment in Egypt to nationalism," Mr. Bannerman said. "That is the underlying factor, and people are willing to make sacrifices for the best interest of the country on all sides."

Mr. Springborg said Mr. Mubarak's micromanagement has resulted in a military languishing behind the times. The world's 10th-largest force, and the biggest in Africa, still focuses on a great tank-led land battle with Israel, at the expense of 21st-century missions such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism and humanitarian relief.

Mr. Springborg said Mr. Mubarak resisted such change because it would expose more officers to the outside world and different points of view.

"They do not want any questions about the loyalty of the military, so put them all together in a couple of camps, give them a bunch of tanks and that's the end of the story," he said. "This is not a military-driven objective. This is a politically driven objective."

A classified cable from the U.S. ambassador in Cairo underscored this point in December 2008 as Barack Obama prepared to take the presidential office.

"The United States has sought to interest the Egyptian military into expanding their mission in ways that reflect new regional and transnational security threats, such as piracy, border security, and counterterrorism," Ambassador Margaret Scobey said in a cable to Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command. "Egypt's aging leadership, however, has resisted our efforts and remains satisfied with continuing to do what they have done for years: train for force-on-force warfare with a premium on ground forces and armor."

The Pentagon has been in regular contact with Egypt's military. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters last week that its conduct meets Washington's expectations.

"I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode," he said. "And they have acted with great restraint. And frankly, they have done everything that we have indicated we would hope that they would do. So I would say that they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy and what we're seeing in Egypt."

A 2007 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo noted that all four Egyptian presidents since 1952 came from the military. "It is near inconceivable that given Mubarak's personal manipulation of the officer corps, that another military officer could emerge from obscurity to assert himself as a candidate," the cable said.

The cable, which was published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, also addressed the Muslim's Brotherhood's ability to orchestrate a coup in the post-Mubarak era. It said the Brotherhood "does not appear to have the organized military wing necessary should it wish to attempt to seize the presidency by force. Constant oversight of the armed forces aimed at rooting out potential Islamist sympathizers means that few likely remain."

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