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Is Egypt heading toward a military regime?

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
web posted May 27, 2013

In August 2012, barely two months after being elected as the first civilian president of Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi generated a surprise showdown with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had ruled Egypt de facto since President Hosni Mubarak's resignation following the popular revolt against his regime. Since being elected on June 30, Morsi had been forced into a power struggle with the military; analysts were divided over whether he could surmount the immense hurdle posed by the SCAF. Would it interfere in his decisions? Would he have to cohabit with the military and accept sharing his power with it?

The struggle between Morsi and the military came as no surprise and was the culmination of a longstanding conflict. On the one hand, the military fought the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is part and parcel, so as to maintain its dominance in what had been a military society since the 1952 revolution brought the army to rule. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood, which succeeded in hijacking the January 2011 revolution, had no intention whatsoever to let the military enjoy full power as in the past. The Brotherhood had survived almost eight decades in clandestine or semi-clandestine activities, and most of its leaders had been in the regime's jails during the course of their careers. Now was the time for payback; time to take advantage of the situation and seize the reins of power in Egypt.

Morsi's initial moves were cautious; he formed his first post-election government with Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi as defense minister. This situation of duality in power was unprecedented; Tantawi was then head of the SCAF and in fact was the ultimate "constitutional" ruler of Egypt. Nevertheless, Morsi chose to accept the facts on the ground and await an opportunity to act.

It was an incident involving the military that provided him that pretext. At the beginning of August, Islamists based in Gaza attacked an Egyptian post at the Sinai-Israel border, killing sixteen Egyptian soldiers. This was the occasion for Morsi to assert his authority over the SCAF.

In a first move, Morsi sacked the intelligence chief, Major General Mohammad Murad Muwafy, appointing Major General Raffat Abd el-Wahed Shehatta as acting intelligence chief. The president also dismissed the commander of the Republican Guard, Major General Mohammad Neguib, and appointed Major General Mohammad Ahmed Zaki in his stead. Morsi also asked Tantawi to appoint a new commander of the Military Police, and asked Interior Minister Ahmad Gamal el-Din to undertake a reshuffle of his ministry. Finally, Major General Maged Mostafa was appointed as assistant interior minister for central security and Major General Ossama al-Saghir as assistant interior minister for Cairo security.

Immediately thereafter, Morsi made two very high-profile visits to Sinai accompanied by the top military brass. He also convened several meetings with the chiefs of the army, stressing that he was the ultimate commander of the armed forces. Then, a week later, without any prior warning, came the surprise: Morsi ordered Tantawi and Chief of Staff General Sami Anan to leave their posts and become his advisers. In a swift move, even before Tantawi had time to react, Morsi appointed Lieutenant General Abd el-Fattah el-Sissi as his replacement and Lieutenant General Sidki Sayyed Ahmad to replace Anan. Furthermore, Morsi ordered the retirement of the commanders of the navy, air defense, and air force, all of whom had been part of the now-defunct SCAF that had ruled Egypt for seventeen months.

Against all odds, Morsi's decisions went unchallenged, ending six decades of military rule since 1952. Morsi took advantage at a moment when the military was humiliated over a major security failure. Days before his move, the SCAF had decreed constitutional amendments that gave it the power to legislate after the dissolution of parliament, as well as control over the national budget. The SCAF had also taken over the process of rewriting the constitution. In the aftermath of the showdown, Morsi retrieved all the confiscated powers and established himself as the sole ruler of Egypt.

Following Morsi's measures against the SCAF, it was believed the army would go back to its barracks and leave power to the president. In a conciliatory move, Morsi asked Defense Minister el-Sissi to raise the wages of the military, and el-Sissi promised better training and more modern weaponry in an apparent effort to meet officers' demands for change, which had multiplied since the uprising against the Mubarak regime.

The Brotherhood Faces a Wave of Criticism

However, events on the ground augured so much instability that Morsi found himself in an untenable position. Security – or rather, insecurity, which had become a main characteristic of Egyptian society since the revolution – had grown into the greatest challenge facing the regime. It seemed at times that the mob was ruling the streets of the major cities and that the regime was unable to cope with the chaos. Morsi himself was responsible for much of this state of affairs.

After the jubilation that accompanied his "victory" over the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi himself began signaling their intention to turn Egypt into an Islamic state. The Brotherhood's overwhelming victory in both houses of parliament and the beginnings of Islamic legislation aroused the fears of liberals and religious minorities. In no time the opposition, representing the 49 percent of voters who had not voted for Morsi, turned hostile to the regime and began castigating it, exploiting the newly acquired freedom of the press.

Never in Egypt's modern history had the press enjoyed such liberties, and Morsi became the target of satire and mockery. His detractors paint him as a marionette manipulated by the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, with almost no power of his own. Bassem Youssef, a satirist with a television program called Al Birnameg (The Program), has become a national hero. Airing at 11 p.m., his show is watched by thirty million Egyptians every week. His satire is so biting that Morsi has tried to sue him, to no avail at this point. Bassem Youssef is famous worldwide, and it seems any attempt against him by the regime would spark international intervention.

The new regime also arrested and brought to trial some of the top brass of the Mubarak era. Over time, however, most of them were acquitted. One such acquittal seemed intolerable. In a famous incident during the first days of the revolution, Mubarak supporters riding horses and camels charged the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, killing scores of them. When the court found no one guilty, huge protests erupted. Even the Mubarak case is a mockery. After several court sessions, Mubarak was still in a revolving door between his prison and his hospital, awaiting a sentence that does not seem imminent. This was another sign that Morsi had no control over the judiciary, which has fought every attempt by the regime to change its semi-secular structure into an "Islamocracy."

While the events in Sinai prompted Morsi to act against the military, since then, little has been done. The regime knows very well the whereabouts of the Islamists in Sinai, but still has not chosen to challenge their presence or confront them militarily. On the contrary, the Islamists, encouraged by their successes, have sporadically attacked Egyptian troops and military headquarters, and have put the personnel of the MFO (the Multinational Force of Observers supervising the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty) under siege to such an extent that Egyptians acknowledge Sinai is not under the regime's control. This has added to the impression that the regime is not tackling the security issues as it needs to. Its incapacity to deal with the Islamists is seen as yet another indication of its weakness.

In intercommunal strife since the beginning of the military regime, Copts – who are as much as 10 percent of the population – had been victims from time to time of armed attacks by Muslim extremists, mostly in Upper Egypt. The successive military regimes, aware of this state of affairs, had put most of the Coptic institutions under heavy guard. With Morsi in power, things began to change. Copts have been constant targets of extremists and even their main church in Cairo, Saint Mark's Cathedral, has suffered attacks, while the police and military have stood by without intervening to stop the perpetrators. This situation has also added to the critical assessment of Morsi's inability to rule.

With Morsi's anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric in the background, the Islamic factions in Egypt and certainly the Muslim Brotherhood, which views Israel as an illegitimate entity with which it has been at war since 1948, expected Morsi to withdraw from the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Yielding to American pressure and with a better understanding of Egypt's interests, Morsi chose instead to deep-freeze the already "cold peace," relegating all contacts between the countries to the military and intelligence spheres.

The November mini-war of attrition between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, known as Operation Pillar of Defense, was a first test of the peace treaty's solidity. Instead of further deepening the crisis with Israel, Morsi sent Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to Gaza to placate Hamas, and brokered a halt to the Israeli attacks by taking responsibility to stop all Hamas rocket launchings at Israeli civilian targets. Morsi's opponents interpreted this conciliatory approach as yet another sign of weakness.

Even Egypt's relations with Hamas have come under fire from critics. Major General (ret.) Sameh Seif Elyazel, presently director of the Center for Security and Strategy, reminded the viewers of a much-watched television program that Hamas has been holding four Egyptian military and police officers for more than three years since they were kidnapped from their position in Sinai. The general further claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, had asked Hamas not to enter any negotiations for their release. The general wondered how this could be in light of Egypt's assistance to Hamas. Moreover, he accused Hamas of being behind the group that had attacked the Egyptian border post in August. Finally, he asserted that in retaliation the Egyptian army had decided to destroy all seven hundred tunnels between Sinai and Gaza while ignoring the "civilian authorities'" stance toward Hamas.

Morsi's initiative to ameliorate Egypt's relations with Iran also drew criticism. After visiting Iran in the framework of the Nonaligned Movement, Morsi invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Egypt. Officially the welcome was meant to be warm and to signal a new beginning in relations. In fact, Ahmadinejad came under attack (and with him Morsi) for two main issues. Egyptian officials, first and foremost the Mufti of Egypt, made it clear that no Shiite preaching would be tolerated ("Egypt will not become Shiite!"). Furthermore, Egypt demanded that Iran stop persecuting its Sunni minority. The excitement about a rapprochement with Iran faded quickly, leaving Morsi with a sense of having inflicted a political defeat on himself.

Finally, and perhaps the most important element in the equation, Egypt under Morsi is on the brink of an economic disaster. The new team has not succeeded to stabilize the economy. On the contrary, Egypt is undergoing hyperinflation and its foreign reserves are enough for barely three months of imports. Trying to implement an Islamic economy is not the best way to deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Egypt has been negotiating a $5 billion loan with the IMF for months, with no result. The minister responsible for the negotiations was sacked at the beginning of May. Morsi tried to obtain Chinese investments as part of a possible shift from the United States and the West, but he quickly discovered that the Chinese were not an alternative. At this point, Morsi's economy is surviving on Saudi and Qatari money deposited in Egyptian banks. This exacts a definite political price that is not in line with Morsi's policies.

This image of weakness projected by Morsi, coupled with growing chaos, has created the impression that the burden of ruling Egypt is too heavy for him and that the Muslim Brotherhood, which had long dreamed of being the sole ruler of Egypt, has so far proved unfit to govern. The Brotherhood's misconduct and arrogance have led to armed attacks by the opposition, with demonstrators trying for months to burn down its offices and other facilities and create havoc.

The first signs of real paralysis in the system occurred when a mob attacked the American Embassy in Cairo in September 2012 as part of a protest against a video by an American Copt (a former Egyptian citizen) that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a derogatory light. It took the regime hours to send the army and police to intervene. Then, in January 2013, open rioting against the regime erupted in most major cities and especially in the Suez Canal zone, prompting the regime to send in the army, impose a nighttime curfew, and declare a state of emergency. However, instead of trying to restore order, the army stood aside and watched thousands in the streets chanting against Morsi. The display of contempt had features of an outright rebellion.

Unprecedented in Egyptian history is the emergence of a new activist group calling itself the Black Bloc (Al-Kutla al-Sawdaa), which Muslim Brotherhood leaders have begun referring to as the opposition's militia. Since the group first appeared in January 2013, it has been in the news and present at almost every antigovernment demonstration, and also at all physical attacks on government facilities and Brotherhood offices. Its members, who dress in black with black masks, have declared open war against the Brotherhood, which they call the "regime of fascist tyranny."

On January 28, 2013, the defense minister warned that unless the political crisis was resolved Egypt was on the verge of collapse. As el-Sissi put it in a speech to army cadets: "The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences on how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations." He went on to say: "The deployment of the armed forces poses a grave predicament for us insofar as how we balance avoiding confrontations with Egyptian citizens, their right to protest, and the protection and security of vital facilities that impact Egypt's national security." In effect, el-Sissi was telling the president that the army had its own views and interests and would not automatically side with the regime; only if it saw events as endangering national security would it intervene.

Today it is crystal clear to all analysts of the Egyptian scene that the army is in fact acting as a palliative as a result of governmental passivity. One cannot ignore, for instance, the fact that the first loan to the new Egyptian government was provided by the defense establishment, or that diesel fuel was pumped at army gas stations to help taxi drivers with their crisis. This crisis had led to the blocking of roads and the outbreak of violence, as on March 14 in the Dakahlia governorate. This role for the army in the economic sphere also extends to the political arena, as when troops were deployed in the canal zone cities. The army commanders have claimed time and again that the army will not intervene politically, but could play a role if things become "complicated," as the chief of staff, Major General Sedky Sobhy put it.

Renewed Talk of the Army Taking Power

Today, Egypt is on the verge of chaos. Amid a sudden popular wave of affection and longing for the Mubarak days, there is renewed talk of the army retaking power. Is this a realistic option?

When in August 2012 President Morsi stripped his generals of their powers, what was surprising was the army's lack of reaction. Given the army's wish to maintain its control of Egypt, analysts had not thought Morsi would dare make such a move. Now, with the renewed talk of the army returning to rule, the surprise may be the army marching on Cairo and seizing power. How likely is such a scenario? The more the societal crisis intensifies and the greater the chaos, the greater its likelihood. As Morsi's government fails to achieve true democracy, respect human rights, restore security, or improve economic welfare, an increasing number of people are calling on the army to return to the political scene as Morsi's only possible replacement. A recent poll by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies found 82 percent of respondents supporting such a move.

However, one must bear in mind that in the case of Mubarak's crisis, the army did not initiate a takeover; it was Mubarak himself who asked the army to fill the vacuum. Moreover, diplomats and analysts suggest that the army, fearful of further damaging a reputation that suffered badly during the transition period when it was in charge, would only act if Egypt faced unrest on the scale of the revolt that toppled Mubarak.

The question that remains is to what extent Morsi will allow Egypt to drift into anarchy and chaos before he asks the army to take the reins. The Muslim Brotherhood waited almost eight decades to become the rulers of Egypt. Certainly they are in no hurry to give back what the 2011 revolution gave them almost on a silver platter. ESR

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.





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