Egypt's Army: key to power balance, but how loyal?
London — President Sadat's successors have started a cleanup of Egypt's armed forces in reaction to the military conspiracy that struck him down. So far, 18 officers have been removed from their posts since Sadat's assassination. An official spokesman in Cairo announced they were found to have links with Islamic fundamentalist groups.
But huge areas of doubt hang over the crucial question of the loyalty of the rest of the country's 367,000-strong armed forces, which have played a crucial role in Egypt's political power balance since Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his colleagues overthrew the monarchy 29 years ago.
Eyewitnesses in Cairo report that "a number of Army units have moved away from the capital," -- presumably to reduce the threat of further conspiracy or a coup attempt.
One well-informed Egyptian exile goes even further. Playwright and leftist politician Lutfi Kholi left Egypt only in August -- shortly before Sadat launched the clampdown that would have thrown him into jail. Mr. Kholi reports that his information from Egypt is that the entire Army has been confined to barracks since Hosni Mubarak, then vice-president, declared a state of emergency immediately following the Oct. 6 assassination.
Instead of the Army, truckloads of men from the paramilitary Central Security Forces (CSF) are guarding strategic locations in the capital. Built up for just such an eventuality, the CSF is thought to have a strength of well over 100,000 and is equipped with sophisticated riot gear including armored vehicles.
It was the CSF, along with the elite Republican Guard, that formed the security ring around the Oct. 10 funeral.
The role of the Army is still crucial in the political arena, despite Sadat's attempts to "normalize" Egyptian politics and reintroduce a parliamentary-style democracy.
Sadat himself had first risen to prominence as a coconspirator in Nasser's 1952 coup d'etat. And Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, first made his mark as Air Force commander in the 1973 Mideast war, before emerging as the Army's candidate for the vice-presidency, which he was awarded in 1975.
In the following years, Mubarak stood loyally by Sadat's side as the latter implemented a foreign-policy switch that was to have deep effects on the role of the armed forces. Egypt was no longer to fight Israel, but to make peace; and the Egyptian Army would turn from battling Israel to cooperating with American strategic interests in the region.
Not all the members of the military and exmilitary elite were in agreement. Gen. Saad Eddin Shazli was the widely acclaimed chief of staff in the successful early days of the 1973 war, though later disagreements with Sadat left him relegated to the diplomatic service. In 1978, Shazli was so disgusted with Sadat's overture toward Israel that he went over into outright opposition.
Gen. Muhammad Abdul-Ghani Gamassi, who replaced Shazli as chief of staff in 1973, was later promoted to deputy premier and minister of war in 1975. But he faded completely from the official scene after Sadat's Jerusalem visit, amid reports that he was deeply opposed to the peace initiative.
Egyptian oppositionists even found cause for suspicion in the helicopter crash near the Libyan border that killed Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Badawi and a dozen top military commanders early this year.Most of those killed were thought to be critical of Sadat's plans to turn the Army into a pro-Western strike force.
That crash brought Lt. Gen. Abdul-Halim Abu Ghazzala into the Defense Ministry. Formerly defense attache in Washington, Abu Ghazzala more than anyone else oversaw the switch from East-bloc to West-bloc arms supplies in Egypt. He is widely considered among the most pro-American of Egypt's senior commanders.
But how much are his feelings reflected throughout the armed forces? And why was Abu Ghazzala, a key man in the post-Sadat regime, absent from the funeral obsequies?
The answers to questions about the real feelings in the Army are extremely hard to find: Any conspiracy, by its nature, must stay secret if it is to succeed, and the views from outside Army ranks on Army feelings are conflicting.
Muhammad Anis Salem used to work in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and is now doing research on the Egyptian Army with London's prestigious International Institute of Strategic Studies. He believed until recently that most Egyptian officers fully supported Sadat's peace initiative.
"The military has been negotiating face-to-face with Israel ever since the historic Kilometer 101 agreement in 1973," he said. "For them it's nothing new."
Salem also argued that Army officers were relatively cushioned from the economic woes that were a powerful motive force for Sadaths domestic critics. "The Army officer has subsidies on basic needs, a car to take him to work and back, and a decent holiday in Alexandria every year with his family," he said. But opposition sources deny such perks were enough to insulate even the officers from economic troubles.
"Of course, the groups which are strong in Egyptian society find sympathizers inside the Army," these sources said. "It is still a conscript Army."
Of those groups, it seems to have been one of the Islamic fundamentalist organizations that managed to organize the Oct. 6 assassination. Elsewhere in the Army, General Shazli still claims support from Nasser-style secular nationalists in the officer corps.
If no one outside the Army can truly gauge the strength of such sympathies, perhaps some of those best placed to do so are the 600 US intelligence officers reported to be advising the Egyptian Army at various levels.
"But it could be another case, like Iran and Vietnam, of the right advice never getting through," said one despairing European analyst."The Americans -- if anyone -- have the men on the ground to gather the impressions."
But the post-Sadat regime seems not yet to have given its final verdict on the loyalties of the Egyptian Army: While the Army is kept off the streets, investigations presumably continue into the extent of collusion with Sadat's killers, and of disaffection in general.
The verdict, once in, could have enormous effects not only on an Egypt facing a difficult post-Sadat transition, but on a US still hoping to build up strategic cooperation with Egypt.