CAIRO - Silence and discretion: this could be the Egyptian army’s motto. Despite its integral role in Egyptian society, the country’s military remains largely a mystery. Considered the major pillar of the regime since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers Movement took power in 1952, the army was always one step removed from politics during the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

Since Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is in command, with the temporary mission of overseeing the democratic transition. The sudden flurry of headlines about the military in both the Egyptian and international media does not actually offer any real clues as to what the army has in mind for the future, or what its real role was in the radical changes Egypt has gone through recently. Almost everything regarding this institution is a State Secret.

The number of soldiers has never been officially disclosed – it is estimated between 350,000 to 500,000. As long as Egypt had a President, the army only answered to him. Since 1952, all the presidents have come from its ranks and in return have personally dealt with military matters. Its budget is neither voted on, nor actually known, by the Parliament.

According to Jane’s International Defense Review, the Egyptian defense budget, which has been on the rise in recent years, reached $4.56 billion in 2010. That’s the biggest budget in Africa, but still a far cry from that of Israel or Saudi Arabia. Egypt also receives $1.3 billion a year in American military aid. Many Egyptian officers study in foreign military academies, mostly in the US but also in France and Pakistan. “Like all salaries in Egypt, military pay depends on the chief’s good will. A general can make 5,000 Egyptian pounds – $850 – or up to 50 times more,” says Tewfik Aclimandos, a researcher at the College de France. “Their salaries haven’t progressed as much as we think because promotions to higher ranks have slowed down.”

A major economic player

The peace agreement signed in 1979 with Israel, followed by the economic revolution launched by President Anwar Sadat, triggered major changes in the army, which slowly became a major economic player in the country. The Arab Organization for Industrialization (AIO), which was supposed to finance military technology when it was created in the 1970s, turned to civilian technology (plastic, electric appliances, cars). The weekly Al-Youm al-Sabia estimates its sales revenue at 2.7 billion Egyptian pounds ($470 million) for 2007-2008.

The army also invested in the food industry and acts as an engineering company, building bridges, roads and even winning telephone line installation contracts.

In an interview with the daily Masri el-Youm on March 27, 2010, General Tahir Abdallah gave concrete examples of the army economic activities. It deals with infrastructure, service, natural disaster management, rescue missions (after the 2004 attack in Taba on the red sea), the destruction of landmines and touristic development. Construction and development of sports infrastructure, including soccer stadiums, is also a top activity.

The army also plays a role in building low-rent housing as well as luxury real estate. It participates in urban planning, in Luxor for example, builds Bedouin villages in the Sinai desert and Nubian houses in Upper Egypt. The army is an important landowner but no one knows how much property it really owns.

Aclimandos says that the military has long been under close watch to prevent it from being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other form of radical Islamism. “As soon as a soldier starts going to a suspicious mosque or library, he is released of his duties,” Aclimandos explains. “The regime and the Brotherhood agree that the religious group isn’t currently represented in the army. The Brotherhood knows that it’s a red line.” But, he adds: “no security plan is perfect.”

The military and the regime had an unspoken agreement that the army would stay silent, obedient and well removed from politics as long as the leadership of the state came from its ranks. It seems that Mubarak may have broken the deal by trying to place his banker son as his successor. The anger and determination of the protesters may have just been the trigger the army needed to decide to take matters back into its own hands.

Photo - Iman Mosaad