Egyptian Military Ready To Step Back Into Politics?

The Egyptian military appears to be signalling that its patience for political chaos may be running short.

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The Egyptian military was in control of Egypt for nearly sixty years at the time that Hosni Mubarak was forced to step aside after a month long series of protests against his rule. During those protests, the military mostly stayed on the sidelines rather than get directly involved, although there are strong indications that it was the military that in the end it was the military that persuaded Mubarak to step aside rather than let the protests get any worse. In the months that followed, there was rather open disagreement between the military council that had taken control of the country in Mubarak’s absence and the civilian government that was slowly starting to form, including several occasions last year when it appeared as though an open break was going to take place. Since then, though, the military has largely allowed the new civilian government to proceed without getting involved. Now, though, there are signs that this may be about to change:

Egypt’s army chief warned on Sunday that the military is ready to intervene to stop the nation from entering a “dark tunnel” of internal conflict.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi spoke a week ahead of mass protests planned by opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. There are fears the demonstrations calling for Morsi’s ouster will descend into violence after some of the president’s hard-line supporters vowed to “smash” them. Others declared protesters were infidels who deserve to be killed.

El-Sissi’s comments were his first in public on the planned June 30 protests. Made to officers during a seminar, they reflected the military’s frustration with the rule of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president who completes one year in office on June 30.

His comments, posted on the military’s Facebook page, could add pressure on Morsi as he braces for the protests after he spent his first year in office struggling with a host of problems that he is widely perceived to have failed to effectively tackle, like surging crime, rising prices, fuel shortages, power cuts and unemployment.

El-Sissi also appeared to lower the threshold for what warrants intervention by the military. Earlier he cited collapse or near collapse of the state.

e said that while the military has recently stayed out the political fray and focused instead on its combat capabilities, its patriotic and moral responsibility toward Egyptians obliges it to intervene and stop Egypt from “slipping into a dark tunnel of conflict, internal fighting.” He said sectarian violence and the collapse of state institutions would also justify intervention.

He urged all parties to use the week left before the June 30 protests to reach a “genuine” understanding to defuse the crisis. “We have a week during which a great deal can be achieved. This is a call that is only motivated by love of the nation, its presence and future.”

“Those who think that we (the military) are oblivious to the dangers that threaten the Egyptian state are mistaken. We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control,” he said.

In a thinly veiled warning to Morsi’s hard-line backers, el-Sissi said: “It is not honorable that we remain silent in the face of the terrorizing and scaring of our Egyptian compatriots. There is more honor in death than watching a single

Things have not gone well for President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in their first year in power. The Egyptian economy remains as bad as it was under Mubarak, few of the social issues that brought people to the streets in February 2011 have been addressed and, perhaps most importantly, the sectarian violence that was kept under wraps during the Mubarak years has flared up, especially in previously peaceful areas like the Sinai Peninsula. The fact that the military is starting to flexing its muscle again given these conditions is not at all surprising and, indeed, it comes at a time when the Morsi regime is in an arguably weakened position:

Fortunately for the military brass, Egypt is such a mess and the Brotherhood (kept out of power for more than fifty years) was so unready for prime time, that the longer the Islamists stay in power, the worse off the country becomes and the less popularity they have. There was never much chance that the Islamists would match their Turkish colleagues’ success. In Egypt, the risks are all the other way. Egypt could end up looking more like Pakistan where a secure military presides over a ruined country than like Turkey where the military has been for now at least swept aside.

Back when Morsi and the Brotherhood were riding high, the military stepped back from politics. Now, the government is floundering and many Egyptians are less sure that getting rid of the old authoritarian system was such a great idea. What the military probably wants is a return to an authoritarian presidential republic in which a strong ruler backed by the soldiers keeps Egypt in order, balancing between the liberals and the Islamists and quietly beating up dissidents who get too far out of line. At this point, the ‘stability at any price’ party is getting stronger in Egypt by the day

None of this is to say that there’s about to be a military coup in Egypt. Indeed, it’s likely that the public would not support such a move at this time. However, it seems rather clear that the military, under el-Sissi’s leadership, is prepared to step back into politics in some respect even in a limited way. Additionally, it’s likely meant to be a reminder that, if necessary, the military isn’t going to allow him to let his government’s apparent incompetence continue to drag the nation down. I wouldn’t call it a rollback of what happened in Tahrir Square two years ago, but it’s a strong reminder that Egypt was an authoritarian regime for many decades before and that the possibility that those days could return is still there. If Morsi’s Egypt continues on the past that it’s been on lately, many segments of the Egyptian public may not be too upset about that.

FILED UNDER: General,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    The US government is likely in close touch with Egyption military leadership. The military depends on US aid and equipment to maintain its prestige and capability, and we need them to form the bulwark against the Islamisation of Egyptian governance.

    This said, the Turkish military is also the “guarantor of Turkish secularism,’ but Erdogan has been on a campaign against the Turkish military and former generals whom he accuses of plotting to overthrow his duly elected government.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I hope they don’t act too quickly. It’s good that the Muslim Brotherhood should fail, but they have to fail openly, publicly, without being able to pretend they were just about to succeed when the generals stepped in. Wait for the next election, see if the voters wise up.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Michael,

    While that may be fine by our standards, it is not by the Egyptian military’s. They don’t want a repeat of the chaos of the Arab Spring. Restoring order and a return to ‘normalcy’ is their top priority. There is a big question whether there will be a next election the way things are going.