from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: Could the Military Intervene?

January 30, 2013

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When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces handed power to President Mohammed Morsi last June it seemed that everyone in Egypt, especially the officers, breathed a huge sigh of relief.  The transition from Mubarak to Morsi had been long, difficult, and sometimes violent.  The SCAF under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his deputy, Lt. General Sami Ennan, were manifestly ill-equipped to govern Egypt on a day-to-day basis and it showed.  By the spring of 2012, the officers were counting down the days to when they could hand-off the whole problem that Egyptian politics had become to anyone who would relieve them of the burdens of government.  Of course, the military exacted its price.  Egypt’s constitution gives the senior command autonomy in defense policy, budgeting, and personnel.  In addition, the Ministry of Defense held onto its robust economic interests.

Yet, just because the officers returned to the barracks and secured a good deal for themselves in the process, never meant that the military had taken its role in the political system off the table.  This is why the Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah al Sissi’s statement on the military’s official Facebook page warning of “state collapse” was interesting, but also not all that surprising.  Well before the January 25 uprising, the officers had indicated that they had no issue with political reform and change so long as “social cohesion” was not threatened. The Facebook post was likely a warning to both protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to de-escalate this recent spasm of violence.   The warning also reveals that events over the past week have clearly raised enough concerns about social cohesion within the upper echelons of the MoD that al Sissi and his top commanders are worried and have, at the least, contemplated intervention.

On one level, the military’s return seems unlikely.  The risks of intervention are great.  If the military dumped Morsi and assumed responsibility for the country again, who would be their civilian partners?  To whom would they ultimately transfer power?  Presumably there would be a new election, but in Egypt’s polarized political environment, it is not clear who would prevail and if that person/political group would be able to establish control any better than Morsi.  Also, what if the military intervened and no one listened?  After all, Morsi declared a state of emergency in Port Said and protesters ignored it.  Average Egyptians still hold the military in high-regard, but it seems pretty clear that there is a hardcore group of demonstrators who are bent on fomenting anarchy and challenging the authority of the state. If the military intervenes and proves incapable of securing Egypt’s streets—a mission for which they are not prepared, it would be a blow to the prestige of the armed forces.  Another question no doubt weighing on Egypt’s high-command is public opinion.  The eighteen-month transition clearly tarnished the reputations of the SCAF as it was composed under Field Marshal Tantawi and important segments of elite opinion regard the military as a counter-revolutionary force.  Intervention would surely be tough politically for the officers.

On another level, despite all the factors militating against the army’s return, it is not as far-fetched as it seems to be.  If the situation deteriorates further, the military might not have a choice and it might find a warm reception.  True, the Egyptian twittersphere, revolutionaries, the Brothers, and some liberals would be enraged, but it is not clear that the general public would be so opposed.  Even important figures with excellent democratic credentials might be warm to the idea if things get much worse.  Already, Mohamed ElBaradei would like the military to guarantee a national unity government.  That is a long way from intervention and ElBaradei and others would need a clear pathway for a transition back to civilian rule in order to accept the military’s return— something al Sissi and his officers would likely be willing to give him.

After the transition from the SCAF to Morsi it is, indeed, hard to contemplate another military intervention.  Yet little more than two years ago, most analysts were confident that Hosni Mubarak’s rule was stable.  Never did anyone think that a popular uprising would bring him down.  Never say never…..