A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 28, 2014

Band of Brothers: A Look at Egypt's New High Command

Field Marshal al-Sisi may be a civilian now, but the new high command of the Egyptian Armed Forces are men close to him, of his generation, and chosen by him; since replacing Field Marshal al-Tantawi in 2012, which also swept away a whole generation of officers (some 70 senior officers were retired), Sisi had made a couple of reshuffles in the high command, the latest in recent weeks.

The new Defense Minister and Chief of Staff are men close to Sisi and somewhat in his image (the new Chief of Staff's daughter is married to Sisi's son). and the Chief of General Intelligence chosen right after the coup is a former patron of Sisi's. We are seeing the emergence of a cohesive military/intelligence leadership of the sort Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarsk always discouraged as a potential threat to their own power.

Before I start my own take on this, let me also strongly recommend this piece by Robert Springborg on the BBC website, which offers his reading of Sisi and his career as well as a good introduction to the power and traditions of the Egyptian Armed Forces. Bob, who is normally based at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey but is apparently a Visiting Professor at King's College, London, is perhaps the leading academic expert on the Egyptian Army and a friend for decades, and it's an excellent piece, though it discusses Sisi rather than the newest appointments.

Much of what follows is from the military c.v.'s of the two new top brass; you'll  find those (in Arabic) at the Egyptian Ministry of Defense website, though it doesn't appear to be possible to link directly to their pages; you need to use the drop-down menus. I should also note that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) has prepared a useful photo chart of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, along with some analysis by Gilad Wenig, though the Springborg piece is much fuller. The poster is handy, though.

When Sisi resigned, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Sidqi Subhi (often seen as Sedky Sobhy) was immediately promoted to full General (fariq awwal, increasingly translated in Egyptian media as Colonel-General,  though it is the equivalent of an Americn four-star); it is the traditional rank held by Defense Ministers who have not been made Field Marshals. The Defense Minister is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and presides over the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), unless the President attends, and the new Constitution greatly enhances the power and independence of the Defense Minister. (This was first done in the Morsi-era Constitution to weaken the authority of the civilian President, but retained in the new version). Sisi would naturally need an ally and supporter in the post to avoid conflict with the Army.

Sidqi Subhi with his new rank (MoD)
He appears to have it. Subhi has served as Sisi's Chief of Staff since August 2012 when Morsi, with the concurrence of middle-ranking generals, retired Field Marshal Tantawi and his Chief of Staff, Sami Enan, as well as every officer senior to Sisi and Subhi. Like Sisi, he comes from the Infantry, as did Tantawi and much of the senior command. He is a year younger than Sisi, was a year behind him at the Military Academy, and apparently is trusted by Sisi. Before becoming Chief of Staff in 2014 he served as Commander of the Third Field Army, based in Suez and responsible for the southern part of the Suez Canal and Sinai. He has taken a keen interest in the security issue in Sinai.

Mahmud Hegazy (MoD)
Replacing Subhi as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (roughly equivalent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US, but with more direct command authority over the services) is Mahmud Hegazy, newly promoted to Lieutenant General (fariq).

Bob Springborg's article above notes that the Infantry arm have tended to dominate the Army since Naguib's and Nasser's day (both Infantry). (Mubarak was from the Air Force, but chosen Vice President as the Air Force could pose little threat to Sadat.) There are exceptions, though: Sadat actually served in the Signal Corps, though generally posted with infantry units (where he first met Nasser); his background in signals is why he was chosen to read the radio announcement of the 1952 coup. And Field Marshal Muhammad ‘Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala, Defense Minister briefly under Sadat and then Mubarak through most of the 1980s, until Mubarak saw him as a rival and threat and fired him, came from the Artillery.

I raise this because Hegazy comes from the Armored corps, not the Infantry. But he has quite a lot in common with Sisi despite their different branches. Like Sisi, his previous job was as Director of Military Intelligence. More to the point, in 2010 Hegazy's daughter married Sisi's son; in fact a scan of their wedding invitation has already appeared on Twitter:
There are many other links among the three men. They are close in age (Hegazy born 1953, Sisi 1954, and Subhi 1955), close together at the Military Academy (Hegazy class of 1974; Subhi 1976; Sisi 1977). and all were commissioned too late to serve in the 1973 War.

All three have taken professional military training in the United States as well as in Egypt: both Sisi and Subhi studied at the USِ  Army War College in Carlisle, PA; both also took Basic Infantry Courses in the US and Subhi other infantry courses, while Sisi also studied at the British Joint Command and Staff College.  And Hegazy took at least one Armored Course in the US.

In addition to these three, Egyptian General Intelligence Service Director Muhammad Farid al-Tuhami, is a bit older than the others (born 1947), and had been fired from another position by Morsi,but was named director of that powerful body on July 4, 2013,  the day after Sisi's coup, He is reportedly a one-time superior officer and patron of Sisi's in the intelligence community (and, according to Springborg, earlier in the mechanized infantry).

The new power players in Egypt may represent the so-called "Deep State." but they also are a Band of Brothers, a cadre of contemporaries and allies who may represent a more cohesive bloc in the military/intelligence sector than we have seen since the Free Officers of 1952. (Of course, the Free Officers did not remain united.)


jroddy said...

You mentioned Morsi's shakeup of the top brass in August 2012, but wrote it as "August 2014".

Very helpful article. Thanks!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Fixed. Thanks.