In trying to parse the role of Egypt's military leaders in the popular uprising that just overthrew Hosni Mubarak, as well as their repeated promises to honor public demand for a transition to democratic, civilian rule, it's hard not to be skeptical. But while it would surprise few western observers to see the Jasmine Revolution ultimately result in one autocratic, military-backed regime merely being replaced by another, it is fair to wonder how the military's surprising integration into the Egyptian economy could be moderating its actions?
As reported last week on NPR's Planet Money podcast, the Egyptian military controls somewhere between 5 percent and 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, producing and selling products and services ranging from food to kitchen appliances to clothing to luxury, beachfront resorts.
The reasons for this arrangement go back to the '60s and '70s, when the Egyptian military was very large as a result of the wars with Israel. After the peace treaty with Israel was signed, the need for such a large fighting force disappeared. But leaders worried about all those young men released from military service suddenly flooding the job market.
So the military transformed itself from a fighting force to hiring force. And some of the businesses it got into were pretty far away from its traditional mission.
It's a fascinating story, and well worth a listen.
With billions and billions of dollars of profits at risk, nobody has more at stake in maintaining stability than Egypt's military leaders, and if that means acceding to public demands for more democracy, then that just might be what they do. For nothing trumps ideology or even ambition, like the almighty
dollar Egyptian pound.