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The return of the Mamluks: How the military walks on the footsteps of Egypt’s most famous dynasty

The battle of Wadi al-Khazandar, 1299. depicting Mamluk cavalry  (14th-century illustration from a manuscript of the History of the Tatars)

The battle of Wadi al-Khazandar, 1299. depicting Mamluk cavalry (14th-century illustration from a manuscript of the History of the Tatars)

I wrote a small piece on Egypt’s military return to power for the Palestine Chronicle. You can read it here or stay on this post if you want to explore some in-depth details (to do so click on the underlined links)

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Cairo. The rumour spread quickly throughout the streets of the city. It is now confirmed news: the king has been deposed by his loyal soldiers. Most people familiar with Egypt would assume that this is the year 1952, that the sovereign in question is king Farouk and that the loyal soldiers are the famous Free Officers. But this isn’t the July revolution. We are some 700 years earlier in April 1250. Egypt has just repelled another crusade led by Louis IX of France in great part thanks to its elite military cast: the Mamluks. The Mamluks are literally slaves (the word in Arabic means “owned”) brought from the Caucasus to serve in the Egyptian military. Their power and influence have been steadily rising throughout the reign of Al Salih Ayyub (1240-1249), the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt and Syria, heir of the famous Saladin, liberator of Jerusalem. Victors of the crusader army at the battle of Al Mansourah, they are increasingly hailed as the true defenders of Islam in front of the weakness and fragmentation of a decaying Ayyubid state. Taking advantage of Al Salih sudden death, they have decided to topple his son Turan-Shah and establish their own regime. The Mamluks would eventually grow to create an original military state ruling Egypt and parts of Syria for some three centuries and leaving a defining impact on the region’s political fabric.

As Egypt’s army is yet again at the forefront of the country’s destiny, there are some troubling similarities between the modern Egyptian military institution and the Mamluks. Since the 1952 July revolution that ousted King Farouk, the Egyptian army has been a remarkably enduring institution that overcame a crushing defeat in 1967, internal power struggles, an islamist insurgency in the 1990s and more recently a full fledged popular revolution.  News of Muslim Brotherhood leaders imprisonment, of former regime officials and whole services reinstatement appears to give weight to the thesis according to which the ousting of president Morsy was essentially a military coup aimed at restoring the army’s control over state affairs. But did it really go away in the first place? Was the army completely cast away during Morsy’s presidency?

The dramatic nature of the events of the first days of July 2013 surely played a part in the construction of a “regime change”, “new-era” narrative where the army was coming in from the cold and ending the failed and increasingly despotic Muslim Brotherhood regime. Several moves by Morsy during his presidency alarmed the army like his summoning into session in July 2012 the elected parliament that the generals had previously dissolved or his firing of Field-Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi from his position as defense minister in August 2012 and last but not least his granting of broad powers above any judicial court in November 2012. All these decisions were direct challenges to the army and its system but Morsy never really threatened the military in its strategic depth. The core power base that allowed it to be Egypt’s most enduring institution as the Mamluks had been Egypt’s longest ruling dynasty has been left intact.

Indeed, the ability to build long-lasting networks throughout the state’s administration, economy and power circles allowed the military oligarchy to endure in various situations. This is very often designated as the notion of “deep state” or “state within a state”. Internal organs within a state (generally from the armed forces, security services or intelligence agencies) unchecked and enjoying total autonomy are able to control and influence key administrations, power structures and economic assets.

In 1517, the Mamluk armies were defeated by the Ottoman Empire. The Mamluk Sultanate ceased to exist and was incorporated into the Empire. An observer at the time would have assumed that this Ottoman victory meant the end of the Mamluk order. In fact, the Mamluk system survived for yet three centuries. Indeed, within a month of their defeat, Mamluk emirs started filling important political and administrative posts gradually reinstating their hold and their control over the key mechanisms of the state. From the army to tax supervision, the old military rulers staffed virtually every strategic position.  This incredible and quick recovery from a crushing defeat puzzled many historians and scholars considering the proclaimed desire of the Ottomans to wipe out the Mamluk military cast at the onset of their campaign. In reality, the Mamluks had so profoundly penetrated and modelled the state according to their interests that they made themselves indispensable for anyone wanting to rule Egypt. For some 300 years, the Mamluks implemented a system where they excluded civilian Egyptians from any political role (the fact that they were aliens in a country from which they didn’t speak the language reinforced the deep divide with the natives) and build a real economic empire through the control of agricultural lands and of the spice trade. The Mamluks were firmly at the helm of both the machine’s wheels and the fuel to make it run. Thus, the Ottoman conquerors quickly understood that they had to compose with the vanquished in order to govern and stabilize the country…

The dynamics at play in 1517 are not far from those that shaped the transformations of Egypt after Morsy’s election in 2012. His prevailing over the army’s candidate Ahmed Shafiq in the presidential run-off and his series of defiant measures coupled with a virulent anti-army mood in the streets (following a disastrous year of army-led transition) sounded like the end of an era for the army. But like the Mamluks five centuries ago, the Egyptian generals were far from defeated. Since taking power in 1952, the army has replicated the Mamluk’s playbook by putting its stamp on every corner of the Egyptian State. Following Sadat’s liberal economic policies in the 1970s and the signing of the peace-treaty with Israel in 1979, the Egyptian army has increasingly turned into a business giant controlling diverse strategic parts of the country’s economy. Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood were aware of this and like the Ottomans chose to accommodate the powerful military cast. In fact, the two arch-enemies had entered into some sort of agreement way before the islamist victory in the legislative and presidential elections. Yet again, defeat at the hand of an implacable enemy wasn’t enough to destroy the military power, well entrenched into the fabric and the DNA of the state.

In fact, history has shown that it is very often from within that the real danger loom for the military oligarchy in Egypt. The Mamluks rejected dynastic rule. In theory any emir was eligible to become Sultan and the election of one of them by the others was understood to imply that the Sultan was committed to safeguarding their interests. The Mamluk system was based upon a collegial rule (very similar to the early years of the Free Officers movement) where the sultan, the first among equals, was propped up by his emirs. Nevertheless, several rulers attempted to establish a dynasty. Among them were Qala’un (1279-1290) and his son Al-Nasser Muhammad (1293-1341) who established the Qalawunid house. The Qalawunid era was a period of protracted strife between disgruntled emirs leading to a general weakening of the state and the economy. This lead the Circassian faction of the Mamluks to seize power from the Turkish one in 1382 and reboot the Mamluk system which had strayed away from its original idea and fallen into moral decay. This capacity to “kill the father” allowed the Mamluk state to continue for another 135 years.

The allergy towards dynastic rule is also a characteristic of the present Egyptian military oligarchy. When it became more and more apparent that Mubarak was preparing his son Gamal to take over, several critics from within the army began to emerge. The antipathy (with competing business interests in the background) of the top generals towards Gamal was well known and if we put the 2011 events in a larger perspective, the revolution can also be analyzed as a coup against a regime increasingly perceived as decadent. Indeed as the Mamluks turned against the Qalawunids, the Egyptian generals turned against the Mubaraks. Here again the Egyptian military oligarchy knew when to cut loose the gangrenous member. Most importantly, it knows how to reinvent itself. As the Circassian Mamluks renewed the Mamluk system, the Egyptian military demonstrated on these first days of July its ability to reinvent itself. From a moribund, increasingly decried institution at the time of Morsy’s election, it is now presenting itself (with a sizeable following and a new flagship hero in the person of field marshall Al Sissi) as the saviour of the people of Egypt just like the Free Officers in their time.

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