This is the revised version of an article that was scheduled to appear in the second print edition of Egypt Independent.
In his speech to the nation on 22 November, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, almost as an aside, announced that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was prepared to hold a referendum on the issue of the military turning power over to civilians. This was intended as a threat to his civilian challengers. Reported to be a keen follower of public opinion polls, the Field Marshal and his advisers no doubt calculated that in any such referendum, the majority of voters would support military over civilian rule.
On first glance polling data supports this presupposition. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in April revealed that Egyptians’ political opinions were much more influenced by military leaders than by any other public figures, including religious, union or political party leaders. An almost simultaneous poll conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that 88 percent of Egyptians believed that the military has a good or very good influence on the country, a higher proportion than for religious leaders, the courts, media or police, and also higher than revealed in the Pew poll of 2007. The results further revealed that the military was especially popular among poorer Egyptians, with 69 percent of lower-income respondents characterizing the military’s influence as very good, compared to 48 percent in the middle-income category. Given that lower-income Egyptians are more numerous than those with middle incomes, and that in Egypt income and voter turnout have traditionally been inversely related, this finding would also support Tantawi’s assumed confidence in a favorable poll result.
In September a poll conducted by the International Peace Institute (IPI) revealed that 53 percent of Egyptians believed that further protests were unnecessary to “achieve the goals of the revolution,” compared to 35 percent who believed ongoing protests were necessary. This implies a relatively strong public desire for a return to normalcy, which is what Tantawi and the SCAF present themselves as being better able to deliver than civilians. The same poll indicated that no political party was gaining traction among the electorate. Indeed, all of them were losing support. The proportion of those who did not know who they were going to vote for in parliamentary elections was two-thirds in August, whereas in March it had been only 27 percent. Similarly, the leading candidate for the presidency, Amr Moussa, was shown in several polls not to be gaining ground from his initial level of support of about one-quarter of those polled. All other candidates have remained in single digits. In other words, no civilian politician or political organization has succeeded in gaining a significant following since February and in fact all seem to be losing ground.
The September IPI poll, if known to Tantawi, would have also encouraged him to think that in an electoral showdown with civilians, the SCAF would benefit from the policy preferences of the electorate. The poll showed that 76 percent of respondents preferred state control and reversing privatization, as opposed to 22 percent who preferred free markets and foreign investment as the best method to create jobs. The military, known to have opposed privatization and assumed to be a staunch supporter of a statist economy, seems, therefore, to embody the preferences of an overwhelming majority of the electorate.
Although the bulk of polling data does appear to indicate that a plebiscite pitting military against civilian control of the transition process would result in a victory by the former, there is some countervailing evidence. The IPI poll revealed a dramatic increase in discontent with the “national government.” In March, only 17 percent had rated it as fair or poor, whereas by August 73 percent did so. Similarly, those who rated it as good or excellent dropped from 79 percent to 22 percent. While the wording “national government” was vague, so could refer either to the cabinet of former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf or to the SCAF, since the former was widely thought to be the creation of the latter, at the least it suggested some dissatisfaction with the SCAF.
Indeed, this potential dissatisfaction seems now to be confirmed by results of the annual Arab Public Opinion Survey conducted in October by the University of Maryland and released almost simultaneously with Tantawi’s 22 November speech. Forty-three percent of respondents said they believed that the military rulers were working to slow or reverse the gains of the revolution, compared to only 21 percent who reported they thought the military was working to advance those gains. Fourteen percent said the military authorities were indifferent.
The data as a whole then reveals that although the SCAF is losing popularity, no civilian force is gaining support, and that the military’s identification with a statist as opposed to market approach to economic policy places it closer to popular opinion than many civilian politicians and organizations, even including the Muslim Brotherhood. No doubt the military as a whole has lost some of its popularity along with the SCAF, but it does remain the most popular institution in the country. The Field Marshal, in other words, seems to have assessed the situation accurately.
But if this is indeed the calculation underlying his stated willingness to hold a referendum, he is overlooking two potential problems. The first is that voters may distinguish between the SCAF and the military. They may see no contradiction in continuing to hold the military in high esteem, while blaming the SCAF for the failures of “the revolution.” Thus the wording of any potential referendum would be critical. If the SCAF were identified as the organization to continue holding power, rather than the vaguer term of “the military,” its chances of victory would be less.
The second problem is more profound and threatening to the SCAF. It is that many in the military fear that the reputation and interests of their institution might be threatened by the actions of the SCAF. This concern would be heightened by a referendum, especially one in which the wording of the proposition would obscure the differentiation between the SCAF and the military, thereby tarring the reputation of the latter with the brush of the former.
Moreover, a referendum intended to flex the SCAF’s political muscles at the expense of civilians could imperil Washington’s vital support for the Egyptian military, including the annual provision of US$1.3 billion in military assistance. Support has been building in Congress for this assistance to be reduced or suspended in reaction to various actions of the SCAF. Although the Obama administration has continued to defend the allocation, it put down a marker against the SCAF on 25 November with the White House statement that “the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately.” If the SCAF were to signal its outright rejection of this advice, such as by proceeding to hold the referendum mooted by Tantawi, the Obama administration might let Congressional opposition to Egyptian military assistance score at least a partial victory. The resultant damage to its professional capabilities would add to the Egyptian military’s concern that the SCAF is not effectively defending its interests.
In sum, by seeking to retain power and control over the transition process, the Field Marshal is playing a very dangerous game that threatens both the military’s and the nation’s well-being. He should have another look at that polling data.
Robert Springborg, an historian and author, has written extensively on Egypt's military and the Mubarak regime. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense of the US government.