from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: Ruling But Not Governing

July 01, 2013

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Of all the arresting images that emerged from yesterday’s mass protests in Egypt, the ones that struck me most were those of military helicopters dropping Egyptian flags down to the crowds below.  The Egyptian commanders have been pilloried for many things in the last two and a half years, but for a group of people who eschew politics and maintain thinly veiled contempt for politicians, they are shrewd political operators.  After the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, sullied the image of the senior officer corps—if not the military itself—the Ministry of Defense is in the strongest position it has been in since February 11, 2011.

In the run-up to the June 30 demonstrations, there was a lot of commentary and speculation about what the military might do.  Would they intervene?  If so, how?  Much of this hinged on the assumption that the protests would produce almost “cataclysmic” violence between the supporters of President Mohammed Morsi and those seeking to drive him and the Muslim Brotherhood from power.  Persistent rumors of various groups arming themselves made the prospect for violence and military intervention pretty much a given. The possibility that June 30 would end in significant bloodshed in Egypt’s streets—beyond the sixteen deaths and almost eight-hundred injuries—also played into an unarticulated strategy on the part of both counter-revolutionary forces embedded within the state and anti-Brotherhood activists to encourage the officers to reset the political system.

Both groups believe that a military intervention would fulfill their specific, but diametrically opposed interests.  For those within the state who have been working diligently to undermine the Brotherhood in virtually every way, the goal is the restoration of the old order. For Egypt’s myriad activists who have coalesced in a profound and at times pathological hatred of Morsi, a “do-over” transition would surely improve their electoral prospects. General Abdelfattah al Sisi and his deputies are not so dim-witted as to fall into the trap the political forces have set for them, however.

The officers have remained on the political sidelines since Tantawi and his cadre of senior officers were pushed out in August 2012.  This is a function of the fact that the military’s status has hardly changed under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.  The officers’ economic interests remain intact and the military continues to be autonomous for the most part.  More profound, however, is the fact that despite Mubarak’s departure and all that has changed in Egypt, the military remains the ultimate source of power and authority in a system that was not actually overturned when Mubarak sought refuge in Sharm el Sheikh during what seems like another era.  If anyone doubts this, events of the last few days should convince him or her otherwise.  Just before publishing this post, Defense Minister al Sisi issued a statement giving Egypt’s leaders forty-eight hours to resolve the current crisis, otherwise the military will announce its own “roadmap” for such a resolution.

The tone the military has struck up until this moment is perfectly suited for the officers’ ultimate goal which is, and has been, to salvage what they can from the wreckage of the January 25 uprising and preserve their place in Egyptian society. Early on al Sisi invited the Brothers and opposition forces to a dialogue under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, which never took place due to refusal from President Morsi.  He has also weighed in from time-to-time, expressing concern about stability when Port Said erupted in a month-long orgy of protests in late January of this year over what no one can quite remember.  More recently, the senior command called for reconciliation prior to yesterday’s demonstrations.  Other than these three instances, the military has been at great pains to emphasize that it “respects the presidential authority,” despite whatever problems it detects and concerns it harbors.  All this helps to create the impression that the officers are the ultimate nationalists who only have Egypt’s interests in mind.

This brings one back to the flag-dropping choppers.  It is plausible that the pilots and crews were acting of their own volition, but it seems unlikely.  Those helicopters were dispatched specifically to Tahrir Square.  Could there be any better way to signal to the Egyptian people that the armed forces is with them and, in turn, burnish their prestige and influence after the searing eighteen month transition than to send flags to people waiting in “Liberation Square” below?  As any number of analysts have pointed out, this morning General al Sisi is the most powerful man in Egypt.  To rule, but not govern….