Analysis: The Egyptian army is making a comeback
Ratty tents at rainy Tahrir Square in Cairo Photo: MELANIE LIDMAN Never has Egypt been so close to civil war and today it seems that only the army can prevent the worse from happening.
The Muslim Brothers and the opposition are both doing their utmost to bring the army to their side, with little success so far: Field Marshal Abd el-Fattah El-Sisi, the defense minister, never loses an opportunity to state that the army is taking no part in the political struggle and devotes its energy to protecting the country – while adding that it will not let it plunge into chaos. The opposition, in contrast, feels that only the army can bring back order – the way they want. During last Friday’s demonstrations people called on the army to “Get out of the barracks and make President Mohamed Morsi resign and call for new presidential elections.”
That state of affairs leaves the Brotherhood and Morsi with mixed feelings. In the course of the past few weeks they have became painfully aware of the fact that the army will not protect the regime should it lose its legitimacy and try to resort to force to stay in power. Last week the rumor that Morsi intended to fire the defense minister spread like wildfire, prompting an “unnamed military source” to warn that it would be “political suicide” for the president since the army – soldiers and officers alike – are angry with the regime. One of the president’s representatives hastened to placate army commanders and the army in turn distanced itself from the “unnamed source.”
Three days later Morsi declared that he had full confidence in the army and “the deepest appreciation” for the defense minister; the declaration was duly published in the media next to a photo of El- Sisi sitting opposite Morsi in the president’s office. The rumor may have been a trial balloon launched by the Brothers who wanted to gauge what kind of reaction could be expected to such a radical move. However the incident can also be seen as part of a wider series of clashes between the army and the Brotherhood.
Morsi first became aware of the problem last November during the violent demonstrations led by the opposition to protest the new Islamic constitution and the presidential declaration granting the president legislative power and full immunity for his decisions.
The army issued a call for dialogue between “both sides” while stressing “the legitimacy of the people.”
Suddenly the army was acting as an independent force distinct from the regime while asserting that legitimacy was vested in the people and not in the rulers, even though they had been democratically elected in free elections. There were some hasty – and secret – talks and the army shelved its call. However the Brothers will not forget that the army did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the elected president.
Especially since the Port Said riots last month between opposing demonstrators and security forces which leaving 60 dead, El-Sisi stated that the army was ready to intervene “to prevent the collapse of the country should no political solution be found.” Shortly afterward El-Sisi was quoted as allegedly having said that he would not let the Muslim Brotherhood take over the army.
There was an angry reaction from the Brotherhood and its Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie condemned “the widespread corruption of the army.” It was the turn of the army to protest and Badie apologized.
Maj.-Gen. Sedki Sobhi, commander in chief of the army, added fuel to the fire by saying that “the army does not intervene in politics but it will take to the streets if the people need it.” Deeds followed words.
When Morsi declared a state of emergency in the Suez canal zone following the Port Said clashes and imposed a curfew, the army refused to supervise it and Morsi had no choice but to cancel the state of emergency.
El-Sisi took Morsi by surprise and embarrassed him greatly by issuing on December 23, 2012 a ministerial decree turning the eastern border of Egypt with Israel and the Gaza Strip into a closed military zone five km. deep, Rafah city excluded.
Selling or renting land there was forbidden because it was a strategic area of military importance. The decree was issued days after the Egyptian government, in an attempt to promote better relations with Sinai Beduin and improve their lot, had informed them that they could sell or rent land in the peninsula.
El-Sisi had acted in order to tighten control over the border zone where the army is trying to prevent infiltration of jihadi operatives into Egypt from Gaza, and attacks on Israel from the Egyptian side while keeping a close watch on the contraband tunnels. However, he had apparently “forgotten” to consult with the president when he issued his decree – something well within his ministerial prerogatives.
The decree led to a renewed wave of anger from the Beduin who are threatening a civil disobedience campaign if it is not rescinded. The army has entered into negotiations with them with no result so far, and the situation remains volatile in the extreme.
Then it became known that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been meeting from time to time to discuss the situation in the country – without informing the president who is officially the head of the council. The meetings were described as “informal” which does not make them more palatable to Morsi.
Tensions between the army and the Brotherhood are a source of deep concern for the regime. Morsi had gotten rid of the former army commanders swiftly and unexpectedly a few weeks after his election, naming in their stead El-Sisi and Sobhi who were seen as devout Muslims; it was rumored that El-Sisi was a member of the Brotherhood.
However it soon transpired that though his wife wears the veil, El-Sisi is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, high-ranking elements in the Justice and Freedom Party tried to have him fired and the official party paper ignored him completely for weeks until Morsi himself explained to the Brotherhood that there was no use trying to reverse the situation.
However, Muslim Brothers are suddenly remembering that the army has always been against their movement – from Nasser to Mubarak – and that it was Islamic terrorists raised on their doctrine who assassinated Sadat.
There are widespread rumors to the effect that the Brotherhood is forming a clandestine militia while setting up listening posts to monitor the army, to be ready to confront the army should it become necessary.
And while the clash between the regime and the opposition shows no signs of abating, the president has called for parliamentary elections to be held over an unprecedented period of two months starting in late April.
Morsi will do all he can to achieve the complete takeover of the country before the new parliament can be convened in July. The opposition is up in arms threatening to boycott the elections if a new national unity government is not formed to ensure that they are free and fair, the large Coptic minority is outraged since polling will be held on their holy Easter week – and the country’s economy is still spiraling out of control.
What will the army do, if anything? On the one hand, the new constitution grants it powers beyond its wildest dreams. On the other hand, the army, for so long the symbol of Egypt’s greatness, cannot remain indifferent to the country’s slow degradation.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.