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The Iranian Legacy in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution: Military Endurance and US Foreign Policy Priorities


In the latter half of the twentieth century, militaries have been a major source for change in the Middle East.  In 1952, radical nationalist military officers staged the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and proclaimed a republic. A year later, the Iranian military, in collusion with the American CIA and the British MI-6, toppled Iran’s democratically-elected government. In the same decade, Iraqi military officers, following on the heels of their Egyptian counterparts, ousted the monarchy in Iraq and likewise established a republic.   Militaries were indeed a force for radical change and often became the final arbiters of power.  However, they also frequently served as stalwart defenders of the status quo.  During the 14-month protest movement that evolved into the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the military tried desperately to fend off the protest movement, to the extent of establishing a military government two months before the revolution’s triumph and fighting until the military’s virtual collapse on February 11, 1979.   The Turkish military perhaps has the longest track record of intervening in bids to maintain the prevailing order by staging four coups in the last half of the twentieth century (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997).[1] The Algerian military, by far the most dominant institution in the north African country, feared an imminent Islamist victory and canceled the second round of parliamentary elections in early 1992 and proceeded to consolidate its power by appointing its own presidents.  It is the Egyptian military, however, that deserves special attention for its ability to overcome challenges – challenges that could have threatened the military’s cohesion and longevity.

The Egyptian military came to prominence with the Free Officers coup in 1952. Its power and autonomy has fluctuated largely at the behest of its president’s policies.  In the wake of Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981[2], Hosni Mubarak assumed the presidency and, consequently, the Egyptian military’s political and economic clout has grown consistently ever since.  The matter of the military’s power in Egypt highlights the core issue dominating Egypt in 2011.  How did an 18-day mass movement succeed in ousting the political leadership of the country while the military, a main power center and guardian of the ancien regime, continued to exist as a cohesive force?  The answer to this pressing question lies in the regional context, specifically Iran, intertwined with U.S. policy.   Indeed, the military history of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and major American foreign policy priorities in 2011 explain why the Egyptian military has endured such enormous political crises.

Iran is a crucial starting point in understanding why the Egyptian military continues to constitute a major power center in post-revolution Egypt.  The role of the Iranian military in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is vital to comprehending the context in which the radical Islamist regime was born – a colossal foreign policy disaster for the United States and one that was brought into consideration when contemplating the role of the Egyptian military during and after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

[1] The 1997 was not a direct military intervention but rather a “soft coup.”

[2] In Robert Springborg’s Mubarak’s Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order (Westview Press, 1989), he suggests that Sadat’s assassination is still a controversial matter with some believing that a disgruntled military masterminded it in order to remove the man it saw as weakening the military’s political and economic clout. See page 97.

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