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November 05, 2017


The men who brought down the monarchy | AFP
The men who brought down the monarchy | AFP

In Zeinab Abul-Magd’s book Militarising the Nation: The Army, Business and Revolution in Egypt, ‘The Republic of Retired Generals’ is the fourth chapter’s apt title and prepares the reader for what is to come. It’s a story beyond belief — of humongous corruption bordering on plunder legalised by the three military regimes that ruled Egypt since the overthrow of the Albanian dynasty in 1952. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak pursued economic policies that differed in detail and were given ‘ideological’ dressings by latter-day scholars, but the one common strain all along was the power the military came to exercise on civilian life by controlling the country’s economic muscles. Abul-Magd argues that the regimes’ economic policies served three purposes: kept the military happy, made the regimes ‘coup-proof’ and enabled the state to keep the civilian population under surveillance and cowed.

Even though the military coup that overthrew King Farouk I was a political move designed to get rid of the monarchy, Nasser gave it bigger dimensions, exploited his authoritarian power for promoting ‘Arab socialism’ and tried to project the army as a modernising agency, especially after his nationalisation of the Suez Canal triggered a wave of Arab nationalism that shook the world and led to the toppling of many monarchies in the Middle East. Sadat liberalised the economy a great deal, but it was Mubarak — whose ‘consumerist’ policy is referred to in this book as ‘neoliberalism’ — who opened the floodgates, less of foreign investment and more of corruption.

A result of painstaking research, the book uses the word ‘militarisation’ in a meaning different from its conventional sense — glorifying war and uniform, whipping up xenophobia and crushing all dissent to concentrate power in the hands of a given party and dictator. In short, a nation in arms. Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy come to mind readily. However, along with the word ‘securitisation’, Abul-Magd believes what is going on in Egypt cannot be viewed merely as the military’s forays into the economy; instead, ‘militarisation’ is the word, because the phenomenon we see in Egypt, she proves, is vastly different from that in countries such as Israel, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan and some Latin American countries.

The military’s hold over Egypt is so absolute, and its corruption so endemic, its story beggars belief even for readers in Pakistan

Serving and retired generals and military officers preside over vast industrial, commercial, land, naval and aviation empires for which, in many cases, they do not have expertise. These enterprises are mostly untaxed and lack transparency; their accounts are not audited and, in most cases, they enjoy liberal tax exemptions. For misdemeanour and graft, the generals are seldom punished even though their policies and hauteur have sometimes forced angry workers to assault them and make them run. But all that the government of the day did was transfer them.

In one case, after a ship sank, the general, instead of being punished, was promoted. The generals also manage the railways so incompetently that accidents number in the hundreds each year, the daily average in 2010 being 58. Meanwhile, naval officers monopolise top jobs in the Suez Canal establishment and maritime departments, while air force officers, to quote the book, “populate” the civil aviation sector.

Chapter 3, titled ‘Neoliberal Officers Make Big Money’, makes for monotonous reading in a prosaic and repetitive but essential narration, because only names change. A general heads an industrial empire, sometimes does a reasonably good job, often makes horrendous mistakes, is guilty of unabashed cronyism, makes money and is transferred, but is seldom punished. One general set out to beautify Alexandria, did many good things, but was so corrupt that popular protests led a court to order all his property seized and slap a travel ban on him and his family. Three months later the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces restored the property to the family and the travel ban was lifted. Targeting the needs of every social class, with the “globalised bourgeois” class demanding luxury goods and the lower classes their affordable needs, the army’s industrial network reached a stage where, according to the author, it kept “an eye on every citizen.”

We also get a glimpse of the impact that Mubarak’s consumerist policy had on society and of the conservative culture Egyptian expatriates brought with them from Gulf sheikhdoms, giving rise to a new breed of Islamist bourgeoisie who led different lifestyles and wore conservative clothes, “but still consumed in the same big American style of their secular counterparts.” The Mubarak era also saw a rise in Islamic banking and investment companies, but many of the companies and banks turned out to be bogus and cheated their clients.

This monotony of reading is broken by passages that seem to come straight out of a novel and revolve round the colossus that was Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, Mubarak’s domineering and charismatic defence minister. The author calls him “the almighty mastermind” behind the army’s dream of an ideal society: a garrison “placed under meticulous subordination and uninterrupted surveillance.” Often a source of juicy material for leftist newspapers for his sex scandals, Abu Ghazala used the peace that followed the Camp David Accords to give new dimensions to the armed forces’ business empire and made policies and laws that conferred unprecedented privileges on the army in land acquisition and tax breaks.

The workers were virtually slave labour and “medically, culturally, technically or psychologically” unfit for their jobs. Conscripts went to the army less for training and more for jobs in factories that made bread, or worked at construction sites, hospitals, hotels and gas stations. Abu Ghazala claimed that his boys were producing five million loaves of bread daily for civilian use. The army also constructed 11,000 housing units, apartment buildings, shopping malls and “cultural palaces” that had space for cinema screens, art halls, libraries and women’s and children’s clubs, besides factories that produced garments, shoes, luxury goods, kitchenware and wooden and metal goods for lower-income groups. Even the Cairo Opera House had the privilege of a general being its chief. On the whole, the armed forces acquired what the author calls “visible presence in social life” that enabled it to “penetrate” into the daily life of consumers.

Abu Ghazala also went in a big way for defence production in collaboration with Western powers, establishing over 30 factories with 100,000 workers, assembling French jets, Chinese fighters, British helicopters and missiles and much more. However, a grand plan to establish a plant producing 1,000 tanks a year with America was aborted under Israeli pressure. Nevertheless, Abu Ghazala’s other plans were more than a success and gave him a social and political stature that frightened Mubarak, for the latter was from the air force while Abu Ghazala belonged to the army. What led to his sacking was an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle sensitive missile-making material from America, and even though Washington didn’t go public with Abu Ghazala’s name, one of the suspects named him and Mubarak sacked him.

Even after Mubarak was ousted, the army managed to maintain its hold on state and society. It hobnobbed with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose president — Mohamed Morsi — drafted a constitution that added to the army’s privileges, gave immunity to the generals sacked after the Arab Spring, and laid down that the defence budget would be out of civilian scrutiny.

Lord Acton’s much-quoted saying comes to mind: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Pakistan, however, those lacking absolute power are often more corrupt than the four who had it.

The reviewer is Dawn Readers’ Editor and author of Waiting for Dawn: 50 Years of Turbulent History as Seen through the Eyes of a Journalist

Militarising the Nation
By Zeinab Abul-Magd
Columbia University Press, US
ISBN: 978-02311700628

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2017