Over the last three weeks as Egypt lurched through yet another political crisis, a variety of observers have wondered what the military might do as Egyptians have faced off against each other over President Mohammed Morsi’s November 22nd decree and the draft constitution. As the polarization of Egypt’s political arena deepened and the Ministry of Defense signaled its intention to remain in the barracks—with the exception of providing security for Saturday’s referendum—questions surfaced once again about the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the senior leadership of the armed forces. Some have deduced that by the military’s inaction, the officers must back Morsi’s decree and the draft constitution.
Let’s stipulate that no one knows to what extent the Brotherhood has infiltrated the military. Since Morsi pushed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi from the Ministry of Defense last August there has been persistent chatter in Cairo that his replacement, General Abdel Fattah al Sissi, is a supporter of the Brothers or that he was the Brotherhood’s mole within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. After all, why was al Sissi promoted? What was it about him that compelled Morsi to turn to him to lead the military? Good questions for which there are not very good answers. Despite the rumors, al Sissi would not be the first senior officer who seems supportive of an Islamist agenda.
In October 1973, the crossing of the Suez Canal was codenamed Badr, a reference to the decisive battle between the Prophet Mohammed’s army and the Quraish in 624 AD. A decade later, Mubarak’s bogeyman, Field Marshal Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala, emphasized his and his family’s piety, in particular the fact that his wife wore a hijab. In addition, Abu Ghazala often stressed that the mission and worldview of the military conformed to Islamic principles. Also, during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91, Major General Mohammed Ali Bilal, who commanded Egypt’s expeditionary force in Saudi Arabia, justified the deployment of 35,000 troops to the Gulf by calling it a sacred duty to protect the two holy places—Mecca and Medina—from Saddam Hussein. None of this should be a surprise given the importance of Islam as a political and cultural touchstone in Egypt. And despite the military’s efforts to keep Islamists out of the office corps, it stands to reason that the lieutenants, captains, major, colonels, and generals of the armed forces reflect Egyptian society, thus there is likely some Brotherhood presence within the ranks.
Still, the military’s determination to stay on the sidelines during the current tumult has less to do with the senior commanders’ alleged sympathy to the Muslim Brotherhood than a combination of more prosaic factors:
1. The eighteen months from Mubarak to Morsi was a searing experience for the military and violated a narrative that has been inculcated within the ranks since the October 1973 war. To make a long story short, this narrative says that governing Egypt undermines the military as an organization and saps its ability to defend the country. Running Egypt on a day-to-day basis was a principle reason for the June 1967 defeat. The military’s rightful place is in the barracks, where it can focus on maintaining its professionalism and defending the country. Retreating from governing Egypt—even as the military remained deeply influential through its links to the presidency—made modern Egypt’s greatest military achievement, al ‘Ubuur or the Crossing, possible. The senior command was keenly aware of the risks of governing (and ruling) during the transition and actually sought to bring the period of military tutelage to an end quickly. Many forget that the SCAF wanted to hold parliamentary elections in June 2011, but was convinced by an outcry of liberals and revolutionaries as well as encouragement from the United States and Europe to delay. Given the unhappy experience of the ensuing twelve months, the officers clearly do not want to intervene and place the military at risk again.
2. In case anyone has not noticed, the draft constitution grants the armed forces the autonomy that Field Marshal Tantawi and Chief of Staff Lt. General Sami Ennan sought during the SCAF period. The Selmi Principles, which touched off a week of demonstrations and violence in late November 2011, have largely been incorporated into the constitution; the military budget is shielded from public view; the military dominates the National Defense Council; and the defense policy remains the exclusive realm of the guys with the epaulets.
3. Policing Egypt’s streets is a job that the military does not want. Egyptian military officers look down on their counterparts at the Ministry of Interior (MoI). Defending the homeland is a noble, romantic mission; beating up fellow Egyptians is better left to police knuckle-draggers. This is why, under Tantawi’s SCAF and since Morsi’s rise, there has been no significant change to the MoI—the ministry that is first on everyone’s list for reform. If the military had forced changes on the police and state security they would have had to confront a potential backlash from within the Interior Ministry and the responsibility for keeping the streets secure would have fallen to the armed forces.
In the end, the military remains extraordinarily influential. President Morsi would never been able to dump Tantawi et al without the support of a lower rung of officers. He needs to hold up the deal he has with them, which includes relieving them of the burden of governing Egypt, ensuring the immunity of the officers for crimes during the eighteen months that the SCAF was in charge, and allowing the military to go about its business (literally and figuratively) with little or no interference from the civilian leadership. Even against the backdrop of the country’s political polarization and tens of thousands of Egyptians in the streets, things look pretty good from the Ministry of Defense.