The politics of the generals

Egypt’s military does not want to get involved in politics. Or so it says.

These words have been repeated ad nauseam since early July, when former President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by an army ultimatum backed by millions of protesters calling for his removal.

Prior to that, the same words were heard in the post-Hosni Mubarak time of military council rule, as it held power in the interim following the president’s ouster after the mass protests that began on 25 January 2011.

Each time, however, as the disclaimer is reiterated, actions taken by the generals hint at different intentions.

Facing ongoing protests and sit-ins by Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement, last week Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took advantage of a speech at a graduation ceremony of a military school to defend his decision to remove Morsi from office. In an unprecedented move, he then casually and openly mobilized people to protest the following Friday to support the military in what he described as a battle against terrorism.

Millions answered the call, flooding the streets in mass demonstrations nationwide, a show of force meant to counter the protests supporting Morsi’s ballot-box legitimacy and draw a more weighty legitimacy from the voice of the masses in the streets.

The move raised concerns that — after a combination of popular street movement and military intervention succeeded in removing an elected civilian president from office — the military may have guaranteed itself a permanent place in politics, particularly against the backdrop of a weak political system.

Although it is invested in a rhetoric of disinterest in politics, the military sees its role as an ultimate arbiter in politics, as Mohamed Shousha, a retired general and former governor, sees it.  

“When all the elements on the political scene find that there’s a strong military that can intervene at any point, this will make them stay on the right track in order to keep the military from intervening. It’s a kind of mental deterrence,” he says.

Shousha adds that the military could intervene again if it deems national security to be endangered. He says that national security encompasses many factors beyond foreign intervention and border security, such as economic policies that  endanger future national security.

“The military will stay as a supervisor until the transition period is over. After this, when every side starts functioning, the military can still intervene if they deviate from the right course and threaten national security in any way,” he says.

Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at New York University, agrees.

“There is no way to predict what will happen in the future, but surely Sisi and his colleagues wish to preserve a role for the military as the force behind the throne, as the key decision maker in foreign and national security affairs, and as ready to exert pressure even on an elected president, cabinet, and parliament to ensure that its voice is heard and obeyed, and that its power and privileges are protected.”

Lockman depicts the main conflict that pitted the army against the Brotherhood, despite an apparent temporary alliance at the time of the constitution drafting, as the latter’s attempt to sideline the military’s role in government.

The military started to feel the “need to find more amenable politicians when [Morsi] attempted to put the Brotherhood in control of all state institutions,” Lockman says. It finally decided to intervene when the conflict between the Brotherhood and the rest of the political forces (such as the judiciary and the police) reached a stalemate, he believes.

While the military says that it merely conceded to the demands of the people to remove Morsi, as the masses took to the street on June 30 to demand his resignation, suspicions loom about its bigger role in the nationwide street movement.

“There is no reason to doubt that this upsurge in popular protest was genuine even if elements of it (for example, the Tamarod campaign) may have been encouraged, financed, and exploited by military intelligence and wealthy business interests,” says Lockman. The Tamarod campaign collected signatures demanding Morsi’s removal and it called for the June 30 protests.

And while the upsurge of mass protests benefited the military in its move against Morsi, the prevalent weakness of political forces beyond the street movement provides fertile ground for more army intervention, analysts argue.

This political genealogy arguably goes back to the inception of a post-colonial regime in 1952, which was secured by a group of young officers who consolidated their grip on power against all political contestants under the leadership of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“In 1952, a junta that regarded itself as being above the state destroyed a weak democratic order. That outcome is highly probable now as well,” says Omar Ashour, senior lecturer in security studies and Middle East politics at the University of Exeter and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

For Ashour, the consequences are detrimental to any democratic prospects. “Once elected officials are removed by force, the outcomes are rarely favorable for democracy,” he says.

And this perceived threat remains even if the army is keen to be powerful behind a civilian façade.

After Morsi’s ouster, the military was keen on immediately transferring power to a civilian government. However, it has certainly not vanished from the political scene, seemingly keen on maintaining its recently boosted popularity.

Even after appointing Adly Mansour as interim president, Sisi continues to use military venues to address the nation. Military jets and helicopters occasionally hover over protesters, drawing hearts in the sky to symbolize the current honeymoon between the people and the military.

Many considered Sisi’s call on the people to protest in support the military a turning point for the institution, which now openly acts as a political player mobilizing its supporters against its opponents.

“I’d guess that Sisi and his colleagues would prefer to exercise power indirectly, through the medium of the current interim government, and in the longer run through an elected government that nonetheless respects the military’s influence and privileges,” Lockman says.

Lockman worries that as long as political forces feel the need to collaborate with the military, which is an element of the Mubarak state, in order to reach power, no real reforms can be attained. He says that this arrangement can be considered a betrayal of the revolution.

“We will now see if the former opposition can work out a stable understanding with these central elements of Mubarak’s state. That will depend on many things, including the willingness of broad sections of the population to accept something like the continuation of the old regime under a new guise,” Lockman says.

For now, historian Sherif Younis sees the collaboration between political forces and the military as an inevitability. He argues that the weakness of the political order is the reason why it has become imperative for political forces to collaborate with the military.

“Neither side could make a move without the other. I think this partnership will continue — the question is, to what extent?” he says. He lays the onus on political forces to build a strong political system that would limit future military interference.


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