Two years after the Egyptian uprising, speculations on the role of the military establishment in the political process continue to dominate public discourse in Egypt. Though the occupation of the presidential seat by a civilian was expected to bring such conjectures to a halt, President Mohamed Morsi’s affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood has only intensified them. And while Morsi 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 Morsi 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 its general distrust of the military). The rumor was seen as the organization’s way of fighting back against the growing power of the military vis-à-vis the presidency. Nowhere was this disparity more publicly evident than during the bloody clashes that erupted in Suez Canal cities in commemoration of the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on January 25, 2013—which continued to intensify after the announcement of the first round of verdicts in the Port Said soccer massacre. When Morsi 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 Morsi’s orders; online, pictures show smiling soldiers surrounding the protesters resisting Morsi’s curfew—in one video, army officers even play soccer with protesters. To enhance that the military is separate from the presidency Al-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 Al-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 rumour 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 rumour, 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 a rising anxiety within the officer corps began to surface, and “military sources” gave interviews to the press on Morsi’s inability to dismiss Al-Sisi, calling the act “political suicide” for the regime.
Almost seven hours after the army’s statement, the presidency issued its own, which reaffirmed Morsi’s “confidence in the patriotic role played by Al-Sisi,” and adding, “the defense minister enjoys the full confidence of President Morsi and all Egyptians.” The following day (February 19), army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Aly posted on his official Facebook page a letter sent from President Mohamed Morsi, to General Al-Sisi to thank him for the great efforts he and the army have exerted in securing the Islamic Summit that took place in Cairo in early February. It was clear that Morsi 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 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 Salafis. Moreover, international support to the Muslim Brotherhood, including that of the United States, is waning, with numerous think tanks and newspapers calling on President Obama to take tougher measures against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Regardless of Morsi’s letter to Al-Sisi, the military escalated the confrontation: one military source told Al-Ahram Online that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has been meeting without President Morsi to discuss “domestic developments amid concerns over Egypt’s ongoing political crisis.” It could be argued that, while Morsi reminded the military of his power with his removal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Lieutenant-General Sami Anan, the military replied by reminding Morsi of Mubarak’s ouster (it is not difficult to recall that the first signal of Mubarak’s fall was a SCAF meeting without him).
The choice of Al-Ahram Online to leak such information is remarkable: Al-Ahram’s state-owned status gives special weight to the information, making it difficult to dismiss as mere rumour. Moreover, though the leak certainly sent a strong message to the Brotherhood, the fact that it was released in English and was not reported in Arabic-language newspapers mitigated its local effect.
The MB correctly realizes the danger from the military; nevertheless, their strategy to contain it 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 its various political forces. When Morsi decided to call for parliamentary elections amidst 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 ministry of interior, and more distribution of power. Rather, Morsi met behind closed doors with the defense minister, stressing for the third time in less than a week his trust and confidence in Al-Sisi and the Armed Forces.
Success for the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections is probably the only chance to restore some of Morsi’s power apropos the military. It is also true that the military’s role in securing the elections—given the inability of police forces—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 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 Al-Sisi and Sobhi.
When an Egyptian court confirmed the death sentences of 21 soccer fans in Port Said last week (9 March), 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 President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The commander of the Second Army (stationed in Port Said), General Ahmed 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 Morsi 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 the society—and not monopolize the ailing state. Calling for parliamentary elections regardless of the political turmoil and sending letters of affirmation to generals are politically shortsighted. The Muslim Brotherhood’s appeasement of the military to hold parliamentary elections without significant reforms or guarantees only undermines the presidency—and will leave Egyptians to pay the costs.
Mona El-Kouedi is an Egyptian scholar. She has recently submitted her Ph. D. thesis at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and is a faculty member of the Political Science Dept. 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.