Two years after the Egyptian uprising, speculation about the role of the military establishment in the political process continues to dominate public discourse in Egypt. Though the occupation of the presidential seat by a civilian was expected to bring such conjectures to an end, President Mohammad Mursi’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood has only intensified them. And while Mursi has had an impressive start – setting the precedent of a civilian president appointing the defense minister – the relationship between the presidency and the military establishment has been on the downswing. The most recent episode of the contentious relationship between the presidency and the military was trigged by the rumor that Mursi was considering dismissing his minister of defense, Colonel General Abdul Fatah Saeed Hussein Khalil al-Sisi. Fingers were pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood for being behind the rumor (given the movement’s general distrust of the military). The rumor was seen as the organization’s way of fighting back against the growing power of the military with respect to the presidency.
Nowhere was this disparity more publicly evident than during the bloody clashes that erupted in the cities of the Suez Canal in commemoration of the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution last Jan. 25 – which continued to intensify after the announcement of the first round of verdicts in the Port Said football massacre. When Mursi deployed the army and declared a curfew in three Suez Canal cities to restore order, Egyptians ridiculed his decisions. The army did not enforce the curfew, publicly defying Mursi’s orders; online, pictures show smiling soldiers surrounding the protesters resisting Mursi’s curfew – in one video, army officers even were shown playing football with protesters.
To play up the fact that the military is separate from the presidency Sisi warned that the ongoing struggles among various political forces (including the president) might lead to the “collapse of the state.” The military’s chief-of-staff General Sedki Sobhi reiterated Sisi’s warning in a televised interview at a military exhibition in Abu Dhabi, in which he stressed that “the military is not involved in politics but it always oversees the developments taking place within the Egyptian state, and if the Egyptian people need the intervention of the military, the armed forces will be on the streets in less than a second.”
A “wake-up call” from the elected president to the military was timely. The rumor came directly after, or even in response to, the military’s signals not only of independence from the presidency but also of superiority and supremacy. Regardless of why or who was behind the rumor, the responses were strong and revealed the level of tension between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The military, and not the presidency, issued an official statement denying the dismissal of the defense minister. Reports of rising anxiety within the officer corps began to surface, and “military sources” gave interviews to the press on the inability of Mursi to dismiss Sisi, and called the act “political suicide” for the regime.
Almost seven hours after the army’s statement, the presidency issued its own, which reaffirmed Mursi’s “confidence in the patriotic role played by Sisi,” and adding, “the defense minister enjoys the full confidence of President Mursi and all Egyptians.” The following day, on Feb. 19, army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Aly posted on his official Facebook page a letter sent from the president to Sisi to thank him for the great efforts that he and the army have exerted in securing the Islamic Summit, which took place in Cairo in early February.
It was clear that Mursi was making “a public apology” to the generals; it was not only a gesture of appeasement, but also of regret. The presidency cannot afford a confrontation with the military, especially at a time where various cities (most notably in the Suez Canal area) are calling for civil disobedience and almost all political forces seem to be turning against the Muslim Brotherhood, including the ultra-conservative Salafists. Moreover, international support to the Muslim Brotherhood, including that of the United States, is waning, with numerous think tanks and newspapers calling on President Barack Obama to take tougher measures against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Regardless of Mursi’s letter to Sisi, the military escalated the confrontation: One military source told Al-Ahram Online that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has been meeting without Mursi to discuss “domestic developments amid concerns over Egypt’s ongoing political crisis.” It could be argued that, while Mursi reminded the military of his power with his removal of Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi and Lieutenant-General Sami Anan, the military replied by reminding Mursi of Mubarak’s ouster (it is not difficult to recall that the first signal of Mubarak’s impending fall was a meeting of SCAF without the presence of the then president).
The choice of Al-Ahram Online to leak such information was remarkable: Al-Ahram’s state-owned status gives special weight to the information, making it difficult to dismiss as mere rumor. Moreover, though the leak certainly sent a strong message to the Muslim Brotherhood, the fact that it was released in English and was not reported in Arabic-language newspapers mitigated its local effect.
The Muslim Brotherhood correctly realizes the danger from the military; nevertheless, their strategy to contain this danger remains contingent, short-sighted, and damaging. The organization seems to confine the political struggle to being only with the military – ignoring the public at large and the various political forces in Egyptian society. When Mursi decided to call for parliamentary elections amid mounting frustration over the ongoing turmoil, he did not meet with members of the opposition either, nor did he listen to protesters in the street who demanded the dismissal of the dysfunctional government, reform of the Interior Ministry, and more distribution of power. Rather, Mursi met behind closed doors with the defense minister, stressing for the third time in less than a week his trust and confidence in Sisi and the armed forces.
Success for the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections is probably the only chance to restore some of Mursi’s power with regard to the military. It is also true that the military’s role in securing the elections – given the inability of police forces to do so – is essential to its success, even if nominal.
Egypt’s president seems to forget that the military does not seek a leading role within the political system, for that the very presence of the Muslim Brotherhood at the top of the executive branch enabled the military to restore its power and reputation, repeating their longstanding strategy of ruling without actually being in power. After a year and half of being at the center of criticism for its failures in handling the transitional period, the military these days seems to only care about its coherency and autonomy from the political system. Nevertheless, it will not be able to isolate itself entirely from the state – something reiterated by a number of Egypt’s military leaders, including Sisi and Sobhi.
When an Egyptian court confirmed the death sentences of 21 football fans in Port Said on March 9, it was the military, and not the police, that maintained the security and stability of the city. The police actually went on strike in almost a third of Egypt’s provinces. In Port Said, police officers on strike called for better weapons and demanded not to be used as a tool to repress anger against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The commander of the Second Army (which is stationed in Port Said), General Ahmad Wasfy, maintained that the army “is not a security institution, but a combat one.” Wasfy expressed the anxiety within the military of performing police duties – something that might have an impact on the military’s effectiveness as a fighting force. Nevertheless, continuous political instability and lack of security equally undermine the strength of the armed forces.
For Mursi to overcome a “military intervention” against him, he has to send clear messages to the public that he is willing to make concessions and work with all political forces within Egyptian society – and not monopolize the ailing state. Calling for parliamentary elections regardless of the political turmoil and sending letters of affirmation to generals are gestures that are politically shortsighted. The Muslim Brotherhood’s appeasement of the military to hold parliamentary elections without significant reforms or guarantees only undermines the position of the presidency – and it will leave Egyptians to pay the costs.
Mona El-Kouedi is an Egyptian scholar. She has recently submitted her Ph.D. thesis to the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and is a faculty member of the Political Science Department at Cairo University. She is currently a research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome. The opinions expressed in this article are her own, and must not be attributed to the NATO Defense College or to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.