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Egypt's Military 'A Builder, A Liberator And Savior'


Some historical context now to the overthrow of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi. When the military stepped in last week, Western news headlines blared military coup. But those in Egypt who support the military's action argue that this is something different, not a takeover, but a rescue. To understand that view, we went looking for some background.


To talk more about the role of the military in Egypt, we turn now to Steve Cook. He's a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN COOK: Pleasure to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, the military has certainly played a role like this before in Egyptian history, right? I mean, walk us through some of that, some past examples of the military stepping in.

COOK: Overall, the military has been a builder, a liberator and savior of Egypt over and over again. Of course, there was the 1952 coup d'etat that brought the free officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, to power. In 1956, Nasser and the military nationalized the Suez Canal. In 1973, the military began the process of liberating the Sinai Peninsula that had been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war.

And then, of course, in 2011, when the military stepped in to save Egypt from the chaos that President Mubarak was causing by his defiance of the many millions who wanted to see him go. So there is a long history of the military being or portraying itself as being one hand with the Egyptian people.

CORNISH: As we hear people describe this situation as the military essentially being a kind of guarantor or aid to the people's will and that they're, in a way, politically neutral. But help us understand that, given that, you know, you're looking at the past presidents of Egypt - Hosni Mubarak, reaching back to Saddat and Nasser, these were all military men.

COOK: Indeed. There has always been this connection between the presidency and the military. The military, in a sense, is apolitical because they don't have an ideological commitment to one particular group or the other. The military essentially wants to maintain its position as the preeminent power and authority in the political system.

And as we saw during the transition from Mubarak to the now deposed President Morsi, the military was willing to make a deal with any political force that could guarantee them stability and guarantee that the military would not have to administer Egypt on the day to day basis. What the military really wants to do is to rule Egypt without actually having to govern Egypt.

CORNISH: And the other thing that we've learned is about the Egyptian military's deep economic ties to the lives of everyday Egyptians. Can you describe that and how significant is that in cultivating its public image?

COOK: The military does have rather robust economic interests. If, for example, listeners were to land at Cairo International Airport, their plane would be serviced by aviation services that are owned by the military. If they drank a particular brand of spring water, they would be contributing to the bottom line of the military. The military is the country's largest food processor and on and on.

As well as manufacturing weapons systems. So there is a noticeable blurring between what is military industry and what is civilian.

CORNISH: What do people who oppose the military have to say about them? What are the concerns being raised?

COOK: There are many people who are quite concerned about the military's return to politics. Let's recognize that the military, the current group of officers, are, of course, the descendents of the military officers who set up the authoritarian political system that Egyptians rebelled against in 2011. There is, among many Egyptians, a sense that despite what the military says about wanting to set Egypt on the path to democracy, that the military has intervened in order to protect its own economic interests and its own place in the political system.

CORNISH: Steven Cook, thank you so much for explaining this to us.

COOK: My great pleasure.

CORNISH: Steven Cook is with the Council on Foreign Relations. He's also the author of "Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria and Turkey." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.