Egypt's Army Has More People Than Miami and Answers to No One

Today's massacre sheds light on the fragile country's most powerful institution.
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An injured supporter of ousted President Mohammed Morsi sits at a field hospital in Nassr City in Cairo on July 8, 2013.(AP/Khalil Hamra)

In some of the worst violence since the fall of Mubarak, Egyptian soldiers opened fire on supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi while they were praying Monday morning, killing 51 people and wounding more than 400.

The New York Times described the gruesome scene:

There were pools of blood on the pavement. Some of the blood and bullet holes were hundreds of yards from the walls of the facility's guard house, suggesting that the soldiers continued firing as the demonstrators fled.

To the uninitiated, it may seem strange that a country's armed forces not only orchestrated the ouster of an elected leader, but also fired on the nation's own citizens with seeming impunity.

But unlike in most countries, where the military takes orders from the chief executive, Egypt's military is the strongest institution in the land, and in many ways, it has called the shots ever since it took power in a 1952 coup. None of the country's leaders have had an independent political base strong enough to counteract the mammoth army, which casts itself as the guardian of Egyptians' freedom. What happened Monday shows the extreme downside of the fact that the country is controlled, even if temporarily, by unchecked soldiers.

Here's how the military became so powerful:

In 1952, a group of military officers pushed out Egypt's King Farouk and established the Egyptian Republic. The military immediately took charge, and a few years later the revolution's linchpin, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, became president. But even though he came from the army, tensions with the military became "an abiding theme of the entire Nasser period," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "The entire time of his rule was caught up in trying to deal with the military."

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During a coup d'etat, Egyptian army tanks and field guns are drawn up in front of the royal Abdin Palace in Cairo on July 26, 1952. (AP)

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was Nasser's power struggle with Abdel Hakim Amer, the deputy supreme commander, which ended after Nasser arrested Amer following Egypt's defeat during the 1967 war with Israel. Amer either killed himself while under house arrest, or was killed on Nasser's orders.

The military's relationship with the next two leaders wasn't much smoother.

Anwar Sadat, the next president, purged the military of his opponents, and there is a theory that his assassination in 1981 was plotted by the military as revenge.

In the 1980s, U.S. military aid allowed the army to begin modernizing and expanding, but the troops got even richer when Hosni Mubarak, who took power after Sadat, again possibly at the hands of the military, essentially dealt with them "by buying them off," Springborg explained. Mubarak simply gave them total control over their own mini-economy, propped up by low-paid conscripts, while using his own private forces to monitor the troops.

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Egyptian troops parade in Cairo on Oct. 6, 1974. (AP)

The U.S. and World Bank pushed for the privatization of the massive military enterprises, but Mubarak, to some degree, fended them off, fearing the political consequences of infringing too much on Egyptian Military Inc.

" ... The military views the GOE's [government of Egypt's] privatization efforts as a threat to its [the military's] economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms," a Wikileaks cable from 2008 noted.

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Camel corps members head out on patrol in El Arish, Egypt in 1980. (AP)

By 2011, the army's political and military might was unparalleled. The Times detailed how the army was operating a lavish hospital and a fleet of luxury Gulfstream jets. The interim armed forces government, which governed the nation between Mubarak and Morsi, put foreign NGO employees on trial, leading to the sentencing and expulsion of 43 such workers.

The military absorbs most of the aid the U.S. continues to send to Egypt. It's now the largest army in Africa and one of the largest in the world, and by developing an extensive network of businesses, it has also become a dominant economic force, controlling between 10 and 30 percent of the economy and employing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians.

In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in March, 73 percent of Egyptians said the military had a good influence on the country, making it more popular that most of the country's other political parties.

Meanwhile, the military has stayed out of the political spotlight, preferring to avoid the appearance of direct rule while bolstering its stature with parades, youth sports leagues, and museums. Egyptians cheer on the Border Guards' soccer team and wait in military-organized breadlines during shortages.

***

Last year, Morsi installed new army commanders that he hoped would be more loyal to him. But his biggest error was playing too dominant a role in national security policy, which the military has always felt was its domain, Springborg said.

In June, Morsi seemed to give tacit approval to politicians who wanted to subvert an Ethiopian plan to build a dam on the Nile. Later that month, he expressed support for the Syrian rebels at a rally that was also attended by hardline Islamists.

The military, seeking to avoid both Islamist alliances and unnecessary overseas conflicts, soured on Morsi, and last week's protests only served to cement the alliance of Egypt's opposition and the military against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that backs him.

Springborg said that despite how large the military looms in Egypt, today's shooting is likely to put a dent in their popularity, if not their power. But they might still recover their image if they cast Muslim Brotherhood supporters as the bad guys. According to one military spokesman, the troops only fired on the civilians when armed Morsi supporters attacked them.

"The struggle over the narrative now is going on between the Brotherhood and the military -- what really happened here and who's responsible," he said. "The outcome of that will determine the future of Egypt. If the military looks like it's killing good Muslims, they're in big trouble. But if people get behind them and say the army is defending people against the Brothers, they'll maintain their political position."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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