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No return to military rule in Egypt – for now: Experts

Despite recent easing of tension between presidency and military, conjecture remains as to possible return by the latter to Egypt's hectic political scene – if the situation becomes dire enough

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 24 Feb 2013
Sissi with Morsi
Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (L) with President Mohammed Morsi (R) at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt 22 August 2012 (Photo:AP)
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The administrator of a website close to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday denied "in no uncertain terms" a statement attributed to his website suggesting that President Mohamed Morsi had upbraided Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi following a statement made by the latter and his top aides suggesting the military's readiness to intervene in Egypt's chaotic political scene in case of a national "emergency."

The alleged statement by El-Marsad El-Islami was widely quoted on social media Sunday morning within the context of a growing public debate over whether or not the army should side with opposition demands for President Morsi – who hails from the Brotherhood – to step down against the current backdrop of economic upheaval and extreme political polarisation.

Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) managed the nation's affairs from former president Hosni Mubarak's ouster on 11 February 2011 to Morsi's assumption of the presidency on 30 June 2012.

Those calling for a military coup against Morsi argue that the country is in a state of political chaos and economic decline that the president has failed to address in his almost eight months in office. Proponents of a military coup also point to what they say is Egypt's worsening human rights environment, violations of civil liberties and the growing 'Islamisation' of society.

Many advocates of renewed military rule also simply loath the fact that a Muslim Brotherhood figure currently occupies Egypt's top office.

Those who oppose the re-introduction of the armed forces into politics, meanwhile, even those who are unsatisfied with Morsi’s performance, say that the military failed miserably to contain political havoc during Egypt's post-revolution transitional period. They say that a military coup would amount to a deliberate suffocation of the democratic process initiated by the 25 January Revolution.

"I hated the military during the transitional period, but look at where we are today. The country is falling apart: the economy isn't working, sectarianism is on the rise, women are marginalised and there is more poverty and more frustration," said Magda, an upper-middle class banker. "Of course, there's a risk that when you call on the military you're undermining democracy, but it's also true that if the country falls apart there will be no room for democracy."

Magda, who has taken part in recent Friday demonstrations that have been accompanied by calls for military intervention, believes it is "only a matter of time" before the army intervenes. "They will have to do it," she said. "Not just because more and more people from across the board are calling for it, but because the military must be aware of the difficulties facing the country."

Hala and Mamdouh, a pharmacist and physician respectively, are also in favour of the army's reinsertion into domestic politics.

This Coptic couple has faith in the army's ability to prevent further economic and political – even societal – decline in Egypt, despite bitter memories of the 9 October 2011 'Maspero incident,' in which Coptic demonstrators were attacked and killed by army personnel during a protest against the recurrent attacks on churches seen during Egypt's transitional phase.

"We never knew what really happened [in the Maspero incident], but I'm convinced that someone gave the army misleading information as to what the peaceful Coptic demonstrators were up to," Hala said.

Last Friday's demonstrations were joined by a number of protesters keen to see the army back in charge. The rallies came against a backdrop of widespread speculation that the president planned to dismiss Defence Minister El-Sisi, who he appointed last August after sacking leading SCAF members Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan.

"We have no interest – none whatsoever – in returning to politics," said a leading military figure who spoke on strict condition of anonymity. "We managed the country at a very difficult juncture; it was not easy for us because we were subject to so much humiliation. We performed our role and sacrificed as much as we could. Now the country is being run by an elected president."

According to this military official, along with other former and current military figures, the army remains "strongly opposed" to any re-engagement in domestic politics.

"The army has its duties to attend to. We're living in a very volatile region and the challenges should not be underestimated. We cannot take on any further responsibilities at the moment," another military official stressed. "As our leadership has said, we will only intervene if there are serious challenges. At this point, however, we don't see any challenges that merit intervention."

Political science professor Rabab El-Mahdi, for her part, argues that it is neither in the interest of the army – nor of democracy – for the army to re-engage in politics. "Politics will always push the army back to the barracks," El-Mahdi said. "This was found to be the case in repeated attempts by the military to rule in Latin America."

The army, according to El-Mahdi, "is in a very privileged position today, as it rules without having to govern and get into the mess of governing." She added: "The army amounts to a parallel authority whereby it has maintained full control over its pre-revolution status and gains without having been subject to proper civilian rule, as should be the case in a functioning democracy."

El-Mahdi believes that the Egyptian military will not re-enter politics unless "pushed to do so by international forces – and we are not there yet."

Indeed, Western diplomats who spoke to Ahram Online agree that concerned international powers – especially Washington – are not interested in seeing the army's return to politics (although some add the word 'yet'). "And the army isn't sending any signals that it feels like returning to politics; it seems happy to remain where it is," said one Cairo-based Western diplomat.

According to another Cairo-based Western diplomat, "recent speculation about the military's return to politics – which, in the absence of nationwide popular rallies in support of the move would be considered a military coup – is still more in the minds of those who want it to happen than in the minds of the army leadership itself."

Notably, Morsi and the defence minister met last Thursday behind closed doors.

"The picture that emerged from Thursday's meeting doesn't suggest particularly good chemistry [between the two men], but it certainly indicates a lull in the tension felt throughout last week," said a recently retired armed forces general.

El-Mahdi, for her part, argues that it would be "an exaggeration" to suggest that last week’s "back-and-forth" between army and presidency indicated a "power struggle" per se. "We aren't seeing a struggle; both sides are merely testing the waters," she said. "There's a new president and a new defence minister and each is trying to establish his power."

El-Mahdi herself is a vocal critic of Morsi's performance, which she sees as "incompatible" with the aspirations of a revolution that she participated in. Nevertheless, she is convinced that – at the end of the day – maintaining Egypt's first democratically elected president in power, rather than the reinsertion of the army into politics, represents the best alternative for Egypt's nascent democratic process.

"The army has military power that can be used to decide a political fight against those calling for full democratisation; but this isn't the case with Morsi, even though he has the support of the Muslim Brotherhood," El-Mahdi said. "When we fight with Morsi, it's a political fight on equal footing; whereas the return of the army [to politics] would represent a setback to the call for democracy as consecrated by Egypt's 25 January Revolution."

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