On Friday, Washington added its voice to Egyptians demanding that the Egyptian military give way to civilian rule. It's instructive, however, to consider why the Egyptian brass are so reluctant.
Their resistance stems not just from a fear of an ultimate takeover by radical Muslims. There is also the fact that real civilian rule could spell an end to the system of massive military corruption and patronage that has gone on for decades in Egypt, a system that has given the military unimpeded control over a huge sector of the Egyptian economy: "a state within a state" as a well-informed Egyptian friend of mine puts it.
That's the state that's now being challenged.
For years, Egypt's top military ranks have enjoyed a pampered existence in sprawling developments such as Cairo's Nasr City, where officers are housed in spacious, subsidized condominiums. They enjoy other amenities the average Egyptian can only dream of, such as nurseries, bonuses, new cars, schools and military consumer cooperatives featuring domestic and imported products at discount prices. In other areas, top officers are able to buy luxurious apartments on generous credit for 10 percent of what those apartments are actually worth.
But we're not just talking about sensational official perks. Many of Egypt's brass are notoriously corrupt. Vast swathes of military land, for instance, were sold by the generals to finance some major urban developments near Cairo -- with little if any accounting.
Other choice military property ran on the Nile Delta and Red Sea coast boasted idyllic beaches, and exquisite coral reefs. In return for turning the land over to private developers, military officers became key shareholders in a slew of gleaming new tourist developments.
The reason Egypt's military became so involved in non-military activities was because, after peace was signed with Israel in 1975, the military lost much of its raison d'etre, as did its military factories. The problem, though, was how to keep those factories going and employ the hundreds of thousands of young men who would otherwise flood the domestic market?
The answer was the military would also produce for the civilian market. Thus the generals came to preside over 16 enormous factories that turn out not just weapons, but an array of domestic products from dishwashers to heaters, clothing, doors, stationary pharmaceutical products, and microscopes. Most of these products are sold to military personnel through discount military stores, but large amount are also sold commercially.
The military also builds highways, housing developments, hotels, power lines, sewers, bridges, schools, telephone exchanges, often in murky arrangements with civilian companies.
The military are also Egypt's largest farmers, running a vast network of dairy farms, milk processing facilities, cattle feed lots, poultry farms, fish farms. They've plenty left from their huge output to sell to civilians through a sprawling distribution network.
The justification for all this non-military activity is that the military are just naturally more efficient that civilians. Hard not to be "more efficient" when you are able to employ thousands of poorly paid military recruits for labor.
Many civilian businessmen complain that competing with the military is like trying to compete with the Mafia. And upon retiring, top military officers are often rewarded with plum positions running everything from factories and industries to charities.
Whatever the number, Robert Springborg, who has written extensively on Egypt, says officers in the Egyptian military are making "billions and billions and billions" of dollars."
But there's no way to know how efficient or inefficient the military are, nor how much money their vast enterprises make, nor how many millions or billions get skimmed off since the military's operations are off the nation's books. No real published accountings. No oversight. Just as there is no civilian oversight of the entire military budget, and that's the way the current military regime have said they aim to keep things
Of course none of the above is a surprise to U.S. officials who dole out some 1.3 billion dollars a year in military aid to the Egyptian Army, and hope that sum and the neat weapons it provides will keep the army in line. [One of the most detailed studies of the military's non-military activities was done by a U.S. military researcher at Fort Leavenworth.]
A perceptive look into all this comes via a 2008 U.S.diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. The writer in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo ticked off the various businesses the military was involved in, and considered how the military might react if Egypt's then president, Hosni Mubarak, were to lose power.
The military would almost certainly go along with a successor, the cable's author wrote, as long as that successor didn't interfere in the military's business arrangements. But, the cable continued, "in a messier succession scenario, it becomes more difficult to predict the military's actions."
Thus, the messier scenario today.