The 1952 'revolution' was really a military takeover – and the well-respected army remains key to the country's future
The resolution of the conflict in Egypt between a popular uprising and an entrenched president currently depends on decisions and actions to be taken by the army. What does that mean? It is not a question to which British history and political tradition provide much of an answer, even if the Duke of Wellington was not a bad prime minister.
The political role of the army in the Middle East has deep historical roots. When the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II set about reforming and rebuilding his empire's power and prestige nearly 200 years ago, one of the main planks of his programme was to build a modern conscript army on the European model, even though he had to slaughter the old model army, the janissaries, before he could begin.
His viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, putting together the pieces after the withdrawal of Napoleon who had largely destroyed the old order, followed the same course. He sent military students to Europe, and invited training missions to Egypt. The rest of his modernisation programme, also based on learning from Europe, was largely subordinate to his goal of building a modern army.
Muhammad Ali became the founder of the modern Egyptian state, and his dynasty remained at least nominally in power in Egypt until King Farouk, by then scarcely more than a puppet of the British, was expelled by the "revolution" of 1952. But that revolution, though popular in the sense that it had the support of the people, was not a true revolution. It was a military takeover. The monarchy had been marginalised and was overthrown. The army had not.
On the contrary, it remained the backbone of the state under the three men who have ruled Egypt for the past 57 years, President Nasser, President Sadat and President Mubarak. All were military men, steeped in military culture and pride. President Nasser's prestige outshone all rivals, not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. President Sadat, though lacking Nasser's charisma, restored Egypt's self-respect by his partial victory over the Israeli occupying forces in 1973. President Mubarak, as air force commander, shared in that partial victory, even if he had still less charisma; his nickname when I met him in 1980 was the name of a well-known brand of cheese "La vache qui rit".
In other successor states of the Ottoman empire the army also played an important role. In Turkey one of the few generals who emerged from defeat with his military reputation burnished became the father of the new nation, taking the name Ataturk. The Turkish army remained for half a century the guardian of the new nation and in particular of its secular and democratic character. Only in the last decade or two has that role been challenged. In Jordan the army had a different role, as the guardian of the monarchy and its protector, in particular, against internal challenge from the Palestinians.
Against this background, I doubt if most Egyptians find it strange that their fate should be in the hands of the army. The army is respected, even reverenced, in sharp contrast to politicians or – worst of all – the police. This may mean, of course, that the popular revolution will be hijacked by a military takeover. But not necessarily.
The Egyptian army, like other armies particularly in the Middle East, is secretive. Their dependence on the US army for much-prized modern equipment (US military aid in 2009 was $1.3bn compared with civil aid of $250m) must mean that the Americans are something of an exception. But I doubt whether the Americans know much about the political attitudes and ambitions of the officer class.
Leaked reports from the US embassy in Cairo show that the embassy were well aware of the widespread bitterness about rising prices, government corruption and even "disdain for the Mubarak government's perceived pro-US and Israel posture". But a mention by an unnamed Egyptian member of parliament in April 2007 of a post-Mubarak military coup as "the best of all the bad options available" is described as the only occasion on which the embassy heard speculation about a possible coup.
In 2009 the embassy reported that the minister of defence Field Marshal Tantawi consistently resists change "but he retains President Mubarak's support, and so he and the top brass will most likely stay in position until Mubarak leaves the scene", and in another report that he "keeps the armed forces appearing reasonably sharp and the officers satisfied with their perks and privileges." No doubt these reports were sound as far as they went, but they do not tell us what we want to know today.
If the army is something of a closed society, that does not necessarily mean that it does not know what the people want, or is against giving it to them. If tomorrow an unknown general or colonel or flight lieutenant (remember Jerry Rawlings of Ghana?) tells us that he has stepped in to restore order following the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak and that he will restore freedom and democracy, after an essential cooling-off period of course, we must not be surprised, and must prepare to judge him by his actions. That will be the moment when external players, including not only America but ourselves, may have a part in keeping him to his word. It won't be easy.