The Brotherhood and the army

Ahmed Eleiba (this story was published on the last edition of Al-Ahram Weekly), Saturday 29 Dec 2012

The relationship between civil and military power since the onset of the 25 January Revolution has been key to national developments and undoubtedly will remain so

Minister of Defence Abdel Fattah Sisi takes oath before Egypt President Mohamed Morsi (Photo: Reuters)

Continuing to unfold, but certainly its most salient feature, has been the relationship between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood, and then between SCAF and President Mohamed Morsi who hails from the highest echelons of the Islamist organisation. In both these phases the relationship took sharp swings between warm and cold, partnership and antagonism, and alliance and opposition.

Recent weeks have brought significant new developments against the backdrop of a sharply divided public and mounting polarisation between secularist liberal forces and Islamist forces. At one point, shortly before the first round of the referendum on the constitution, the Armed Forces command issued a statement that raised eyebrows.

This was followed by an invitation to a national dialogue that was quickly renamed a humanitarian dialogue before being called off. Not long afterwards, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie issued a statement in which certain remarks about the military stirred considerable controversy.

What is the relationship between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood?

These days, most Muslim Brotherhood leaders avoid speaking about it in any negative way as though to soothe any ruffled feathers or mend any rifts. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau Mahmoud Ghozlan offered the following terse answer to Al-Ahram's Arabic-Language news website: “Relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Armed Forces are normal. The Muslim Brotherhood is the same as all other citizens, parties and political forces with respect to the army. There is no special relationship."

A Muslim Brotherhood source who is a senior officer in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP — the Brotherhood’s political wing) suggests that the situation is a little bit more subtle. He spoke of several major turning points in this relationship, some concerning suspicions that SCAF was manoeuvring to assert itself in the political domain again after the reins of government had been handed to the president.

However, he added, ultimately the Brotherhood is confident that there is no reason to worry about SCAF’s intentions towards the political authority.

The source said that one difficult juncture occurred with the SCAF announcement at the time of the mass demonstrations in front of the presidential palace. “Why was there a need for such a statement to begin with? Why was there no reference to support for the legitimate authority as embodied in the president while stressing the army’s support for the people?” Nevertheless, he said, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership did not dwell excessively on this point.

But if the Guidance Bureau read the statement cursorily, that was not the case with the FJP. Hussein Ibrahim, a party official, instructed his fellow party members to ignore the message and to keep their language towards the Armed Forces cool.

The Muslim Brotherhood source continues: “He also contacted other officials in the party as well as Ambassador Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, chief of the presidential staff, for clarifications. The messages he received were reassuring to all. We know how good Al-Tahtawi’s relations are with the minister of defence, General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. I also believe that, since coming to power, President Morsi has exerted considerable efforts to contain the Armed Forces and to devise a good relationship between the two sides. This was quite clear during Al-Gomhuriya newspaper crisis with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan. The president went to the army and told them that he would never allow any insult to the army or its leaders.”

In one of his recent Thursday addresses, Badie said: “The prophet, peace be upon him, describes the people of Egypt as the best soldiers on earth, which is to say they are obedient soldiers who need leadership. When the leadership was corrupt, these soldiers followed it. This is why there is a need for a wise leadership as well as raising the soldiers’ awareness.”

The remark stirred an outcry but, according to Muslim Brotherhood sources, above, the outcry was fabricated. “It was a feeble attempt to create a crisis in the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] relationship with the army,” one source said, adding: “Most likely the president contacted the minister of defence to explain that the statements had been tampered with, because that was not what Badie meant at all.”

The source said that proof of this was to be found in the fact that, when speaking in Beni Sweif afterwards, the supreme guide himself said, “the statements have been falsified, misquoted and taken out of context,” and he described those who transmitted them in this manner as “some who are so desperate to reproduce the former regime that they fish in troubled waters and twist texts to serve their own purposes and use them in the strife-sowing media.

But this does not fool the Egyptian people and, at their heart, the great Egyptian army which is esteemed by all the people of Egypt and which we cherish. We will never forget the role it has played in protecting Egypt, its people and its revolution.”

To some military experts, such attempts to placate the army were not convincing. They are of the opinion that the Muslim Brothers lack sufficient political expertise, especially as concerns relations with the army. As military affairs expert General Mohamed Ali Bilal put it in an interview with the ahram gate , “The Muslim Brotherhood deals with the state and its institutions as though it were a rival rather than a state with component entities.”

Looking back over the history of the Muslim Brotherhood-army relationship since the revolution, Bilal sees two phases delineated by the transitional stage and then the Muslim Brotherhood’s assumption of political power. In the first phase, SCAF regarded the Muslim Brotherhood as a political faction that had to be taken into account as a political force, the interaction with which should take place within the framework of negotiation, cooperation and give-and-take.

The army leadership never sought to clash with the Muslim Brothers because its primary aim was to restore domestic stability after the revolution. In the second phase, after Morsi was elected president and became the supreme commander of the armed forces and the minister of defence became the commander-general of the army, there should no longer be a relationship between the army and the Muslim Brothers.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to observe the boundary. They make no distinction between the phase in which SCAF administered the country in its capacity as an entity that temporarily acted as the head-of-state and the subsequent phase in which the army reverted to being an institutional entity. This helps explain why they sometimes express gratitude to the army and, at other times, offend it.

Said Okasha, who recently undertook a study of military-civilian relations, elaborates: “As I see it, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army is currently characterised by a kind of wariness.

A certain school of thought derived from the historical legacy of this relationship has gained ascendancy in the Muslim Brotherhood. Its major exponents are the Murshid [Supreme Guide] Mohamed Badie, the Deputy-Murshid Mahmoud Ezzat and the Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein, and it holds that the army, in the past, played a well-known instrumental part in curbing the Muslim Brotherhood movement and restricting its manoeuvrability during the eras of [Gamal] Abdel-Nasser, [Anwar] Al-Sadat and [Hosni] Mubarak. Since the revolution, there has been an ease-up in the political domain supported by pressures on SCAF to clear the way for the political participation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, between that historical legacy and the new situation there remains a degree of lack of trust between the two sides.”

And how does the army perceive the Muslim Brotherhood? There is also a history of the latter’s attempts to infiltrate the military establishment revealed in the literature of individuals who have broken away from the Muslim Brotherhood. One such person is Tharwat Al-Kharbawi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and author of The Secret of the Temple that discusses Muslim Brotherhood designs to create secret units inside the army.

Both General Bilal and General Hossam Kheirallah, former first deputy of General Intelligence and a national security expert, hasten to point out that all such attempts met with failure. The army has not and will not allow infiltration, and the isolated attempts that have emerged have been dealt with through the army’s security apparatus, they stress.

Bilal continues: “There is nothing to worry about when dealing with a president or a civilian group. However, the army does begin to worry in cases of ideological groups and it worries more when the group is a proselytising entity with a political identity, as is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood. The army is made up of all citizens of the country. Its harmony derives from this.

So when a particular identity tries to interfere or meddle in the army, this is unacceptable. It is for this reason that many military experts have cautioned against the day when the minister of defence could be polarised by a political force that, in turn, would impact on the nature of the army. Unfortunately, such a possibility has been embedded into the new constitution in the article pertaining to the minister of defence."

Certainly recent press releases by Muslim Brotherhood officials and army officials suggest that relations between the two sides are not as smooth as some insist. One day the army responds angrily to a Muslim Brotherhood statement, the next the Muslim Brotherhood issues a response via an FJP leader criticising the army for not espousing the “legitimacy of the president."

Then, the following day, a military source responds to Badie’s remarks stating, “We reject such statements.” General Bilal underscores a significant point in this regard: “I believe that the Armed Forces handled the supreme guide in his capacity as an ordinary citizen who does not merit a direct response to the remarks attributed to him.” He continues: “What we have is a clear and undisguised dispute in which the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to provoke the army.

"The murshid’s remarks, however one might try to justify them, are unacceptable and painful to any military man. This group must desist from issuing statements that have a bearing on the army. It and other groups must be trained in how to address the institutions of the state, and especially the military establishment in their statements, because they clearly have not learned this part of politics.”

Bilal holds that the controversy over the invitation to a national dialogue that the minister of defence extended to diverse political forces marked a peak in the dispute. “The minister was doing no more than to exercise his role in protecting constitutional legitimacy. It is not one of his duties to protect ‘presidential legitimacy’, which the Muslim Brotherhood keeps harping on. He issued his invitation in the interest of safeguarding the country from the dangers that threaten it.

This is the function of the army. It was also proof that he wanted to keep an equal distance from all political forces. But the Muslim Brotherhood interpreted it in its own way. Sadly, they frequently insult the institutions of the state. They also frequently contradict their own statements after which they always lay the blame on the media.

Only recently, Essam Al-Haddad, the president’s foreign affairs assistant, described the Supreme Constitutional Court as a force that was hostile to the revolution and then claimed that his statement was taken out of context and distorted in translation.”

General Kheirallah agrees with Bilal. Both officers strongly disapprove of the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach towards the army. Kheirallah observes: “Unfortunately, SCAF was always passive in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s incessant threats to cause disruption. It never took the initiative to stop Muslim Brotherhood muscle flexing.

Initially, in the first phase of the transitional period, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF had been amicable and cooperative. But after the Muslim Brothers forced SCAF into a course that set legislative assembly elections ahead of drawing up a constitution, the relationship soured.

When SCAF attempted to correct its error by implementing the Supreme Constitutional Court ruling with regard to the unconstitutionality of the electoral law that created the last People’s Assembly, the Muslim Brothers began to join in the demonstrations calling for the ‘end to military rule.’

“At the time, Field Marshal Tantawi asked General Murad Mowafi, former head of General Intelligence, to open a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to persuade them to refrain from that type of behaviour. But the Muslim Brotherhood persisted, compelling Tantawi to halt the contacts.

Then suddenly, there were hints that the director of Military Intelligence, General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who is currently minister of defence, could intervene. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood needed the army again after they had failed to secure the continuation of the People’s Assembly through their own devices.

From that point on, the relationship seemed to take a new course against the backdrop of the idea that Al-Sisi is a religious man. The Muslim Brotherhood tried to exploit this quality, but it has since become clear that Al-Sisi has a clear aim, which is to revive the prestige of the military establishment and extricate it from political squabbles.”

Kheirallah adds that the army remains involved in the political domain because the transitional phase is not yet complete. “The tug-of-war between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army will continue in this framework until realities on the ground impose boundaries on the spheres of their involvement in politics. But this won’t occur until the political agitation and din settles down.”

US backing and support for the Muslim Brotherhood has also come under fire from various quarters. The army is no exception. Kheirallah observes: “The army is aware that it needs the US in light of international circumstances that all are aware of various mutual arrangements and coordination in armaments.

However, many, including people in the army, have begun to wonder at US policy. Why is the US supporting the Muslim Brotherhood? Why has it not criticised their political performance on a number of issues, the most recent of which concerned violations in the referendum on the constitution about which Washington said nothing, contrary to its positions on similar violations that occurred during the final years of the Mubarak era.

“I believe that the US needs to make the Muslim Brotherhood understand that democratic politics is about participation and inclusion, not domination and exclusion. In addition, Washington should stop using so many double standards. In this regard, it should stop sending messages to the army regarding the lack of clarity of the army’s position with respect to domestic politics while simultaneously lending its unreserved support to the Muslim Brotherhood.

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