Defense Minister Mohamed Husein Tantawi now rules Egypt, “sitting at the helm of a provisional government made up almost entirely of senior Egyptian generals.” How will he rule? Consider that the military has a great deal of wealth and power that it wants to defend, owning/controlling 10-15% of Egypt’s $210 billion economy, according to one expert (see Egypt’s Military-Industrial Complex). General Tantawi, 75, defense minister since 1991, has been in the thick of that. On the military’s role in the economy, Time Magazine notes that
… military-run firms hold strong positions in a wide range of key industries, including food (olive oil, milk, bread and water); cement and gasoline; vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers); and construction, in which it benefits being able to deploy conscripts during their last six months of service. Another source of the military’s untold wealth is its hold on one of this densely populated country’s most precious commodities: public land, which is increasingly being converted into gated communities and resorts. The military has other advantages: it does not pay taxes and does not have to deal with the bureaucratic red tape that strangles the private sector.
The money and status is enormous, as is the lifestyle that comes along with it, Time continues:
The revenue streams from its various holdings help the military maintain the lifestyle its officers have grown accustomed to, including an extensive network of luxurious social clubs as well as comfortable retirements — all of which helps ensure officer loyalty.
What you’ll also read about Tantawi is from a 2008 U.S. embassy cable (brought to you by our nation’s best journalistic source, Wikileaks), in which a U.S. embassy officer wrote that mid-level Egyptian military officers were upset with Tantawi for his seemingly slavish loyalty to Mubarak. Some had nicknamed him “Mubarak’s poodle.” Maybe the opposite has in fact been the case?
More interesting in that cable was the following, about the cleavage between the military elite’s economic interests and the interests of non-military economic elites, for whom Gamal Mubarak was a leading edge:
Most analysts agreed that the military views the GOE’s privatization efforts as a threat to its economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms. –––– –––– speculated that privatization has forced military-owned companies to improve the quality of their work, specifically in the hotel industry, to compete with private firms and attract critical foreign investment. –––– –––– predicted that the growing power of the economic elite at the military’s expense is inevitable as economic necessity drives the government to maintain its economic reform policies in order to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).
Time magazine adds that military
… economic power and patronage came under threat from the attempts of Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son and heir presumptive, to reform Egypt along lines that skirted the generals. The military was particularly incensed that a key ally of Gamal’s, Ahmed Ezz, was able to snap up state-owned steel assets, strengthening his commanding position in the industry. Not only was the military interested in the same firms, but as a major buyer of steel it would be vulnerable to Ezz’s ability to impose near monopoly pricing.
The Egyptian people have a dauntingly hard job ahead of them, if they want to wrest a new democracy away from both the Gamal Mubaraks and Ahmed Ezzs _and_ the military elite. Perhaps, like most of us, they will have to be satisfied (for now?) with being free of only some of their oppressors.