It seems like déjà vu all over again in Egypt. Recent clashes between supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and those who oppose his government’s draft constitution are reminiscent of the violence in the last days of former President Hosni Mubarak’s reign. Both then and now, the military and police have been generally absent from the scene, standing aloof from the chaos around them. To be sure, the generals have issued statements suggesting that they might step in to restore order, but they have never made clear whether they would intervene on behalf of the protesters or Morsi. Further, on December 11, they indicated their interest in brokering a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the protesters, only to rescind the offer shortly thereafter.
Some have argued that the military’s apparent neutrality is a reflection of its diminished power. The June 2012 election that brought Morsi to office, the argument goes, clipped the military’s wings, forcing the soldiers back to their barracks. Specifically, Morsi’s sacking of the most senior general in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last August was taken as proof. Yet Morsi’s move was not solely Machiavellian. In fact, according to Egypt’s deputy defense minister, General Mohamed el-Assar, Morsi coordinated his plan with the SCAF’s junior members. The gambit thus revealed the beginnings of an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces.
The military’s feint at nonpartisanship during the recent protests was similarly clever. With the demonstrators calling for Morsi’s ouster and the president’s supporters chastising the protesters for wanting to topple an elected government, observers seemed unconcerned with the military. It was almost as if they had forgotten about the SCAF’s despised rule in the 17 months following Mubarak’s ouster and the body’s continued presence in the halls of power thereafter. To be sure, during its stint in office, the SCAF minimally delivered on its promise to return Egypt to civilian rule, but it also grew increasingly repressive and worked to preserve the character of the Mubarak-era state apparatus while shuffling its leadership for the sake of appearances. To do so, the SCAF built a coalition for day-to-day governing that included representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood, a political force in Egypt since 1928; Salafis, who were known quantities to the security services; and some key holdovers from Mubarak’s day, including members of the old nominal opposition. The revolutionaries were excluded, while powerful figures in state institutions derided, misrepresented, and selectively repressed them. When Egyptians went to the polls earlier this year, Muslim Brotherhood emerged victorious.
Behind the scenes, the generals have backed the elected president while working to preserve their own interests. In part, they have done so because they believe that Morsi and the group from which he hails are likely to continue winning elections. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood is better organized than Egypt’s other political parties, and its networks stretch throughout the entire country, allowing it to reach a huge portion of the population. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike the revolutionary forces, has shown that it will compromise and negotiate with the generals. For the military brass, it simply makes more sense to gamble on someone with electoral legitimacy than try to overcome the recalcitrance of any of its political opponents.
In return for the military’s support, the Muslim Brotherhood incorporated many of its core demands — no parliamentary oversight over the military budget, the establishment of a National Defense Council stacked with generals, and the ability to try civilians in military tribunals — directly into the draft constitution. Egypt’s founding document, then, is the realization of what the military has sought ever since Mubarak’s departure. Even better for the military, it got exactly what it wanted while appearing to stay on the sidelines of Egyptian politics.
The generals’ outward neutrality leaves them with the option of backing an alternative, such as a former official from the Mubarak era, should things shift out of Morsi’s favor. But that does not look like it will happen anytime soon. Although recent protests and violence have proven disruptive, emphasizing just how fragile Morsi’s mandate is, the revolutionaries have neither been able to unify nor merge with other dissatisfied groups such as the labor movement or the so-called remnant forces. Meanwhile, opposition from the revolutionary forces and people still in government who never liked the Brotherhood, as well as pressure from a continuing economic crisis,will prevent Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from becoming too radical.
Although the military’s strategy seems to be working for now, it is a risky bet. In fact, it might eventually be the force’s undoing. During the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, the military’s leading generals gambled that they could contain the street protests — ousting Mubarak but not undertaking grand structural changes to the political order. After the elections, the generals banked on the assumption that they would be able to use elected civilians as scapegoats during any future political or economic crisis.
But nearly two years later, the protests have not stopped. And there is little to suggest that the next two years will be any different. The revolutionaries are learning from their mistakes and broadening their appeal. Meanwhile, the government is not winning over many allies.
The longer the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by the military, does a poor job governing Egypt, the further the tables will incrementally tilt in favor of the revolutionaries. That will be a long process; it will certainly not happen before Morsi’s draft constitution passes (which is likely) and he pushes for new parliamentary elections. But it will happen eventually. And despite the fact that the military remains relatively popular throughout the country, it is uncertain whether it will be able to forestall a deeper political reformation in Egypt if opposition groups organize. Indeed, if the military fails to recognize its limitations, next time it might be forced to negotiate its way out of a crisis with the revolutionaries directly — a situation that could lead to changes beyond its control.