The political role of the Egyptian army

Hicham Mourad , Tuesday 20 Aug 2013

The return of the army to the political scene raises many questions about the political future of Egypt

Is the army on the right road to democratisation or is it risking what some call a "restoration" of the authoritarian regime in a new form? The answer is probably somewhere in between. In any case, the road to democracy will be long and chaotic.

The crisis in which the country finds itself today is largely the result of the failure of its first post-revolutionary democratic experience. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, for a variety of reasons, in this first test brought back the army to the political arena. But scalded by the 16 months of the first period of transition, when it held the reins of power directly after the fall of Mubarak, the army has tried this time to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The first transition (11 February 2011-30 June 2012) was a disaster for the image of the army, because of several errors in the management of the country’s affairs, a task for which the military is not trained. Violations of human rights, brutality and violence used by the military against protests ruined its reputation with a good part of the population, particularly the revolutionaries. This was an unprecedented situation in the modern history of Egypt, where the army has always been revered.

After the removal last August of Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and Sami Anan, the chief of staff, the new army command kept out of politics to restore its reputation and improve its image.

It especially took clever advantage of repeated errors of the Muslim Brotherhood regime to regain its popularity with the population. On the occasion of the protests of the second anniversary of the revolution in last January, president Mohamed Morsi declared an unpopular curfew in the three cities of the Suez Canal and instructed the army to apply it. But the latter refrained from using any coercion or violence to implement it, to the chagrin of Morsi. Instead, videos circulating on social networks showed soldiers playing football with young people defying the curfew.

The military has also initiated a dialogue with the liberal and revolutionary forces and worked to build a relationship of trust with them. And as the opposition rose against the president and the Brotherhood, the army, after an initial period of neutrality, informed the opposition of its support, at least morally. That gave it a boost. The message was that the army could not act on its own against the regime, without first broad popular movement supporting it. In other words, the message was: "mobilise and we'll follow you."

Without direct assistance from the army, the Rebel (Tamarrod) movement, which initiated the popular mobilisation of the 30 June that sounded the death knell of the regime of the Brotherhood, has thus benefited from the moral and political support of the military, which also had its grievances vis-à-vis president Morsi.

In addition to his domestic policy, which has widened the gap between government and opposition, the army was strongly concerned about Morsi’s foreign policy, motivated by religious and sectarian dimension, in favour of Hamas (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) in the Gaza Strip and against the Alawite regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. It considered this policy likely to endanger the national security of Egypt.

After noting that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, who took to the streets on 30 June in greater numbers than those who demonstrated against Mubarak in February 2011, want to put an end to the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, the army this time publicly expressed its support for the departure of Morsi. The defence minister, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, then sent him the next day the famous 48-hour ultimatum. In a symbolic but highly significant act and one that was extremely positive for the army’s image, military helicopters flew, before the official dismissal of Morsi, over Tahrir Square, throwing national flags to the cheering crowd. On 5 July, two days after the overthrow of the president, military aircraft drew a heart in the sky in Tahrir, a sign of fusion with the Egyptians who were celebrating the fall of the Brotherhood.

Despite this high visibility, the army wanted to avoid the mistakes of the first transitional period. It has put forward the civil forces during this second period and makes them participate in the drafting of the roadmap for the transition process. To reassure, the latter is short-lived: it provides legislative and presidential elections, respectively in six and nine months. A civilian acting president was immediately installed and a civil government formed. However, the head of the army remains the strong man of the interim government. He will remain so at least until the election of a parliament and a president.

The call on 24 July by El-Sisi to the people to massively demonstrate on 26 July, to give a mandate to the army to crackdown on "violence" and "terrorism" caused by the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of former president Morsi, worried many, among those who fear the political ambitions of the military, as well as defenders of democracy and respect for human rights who, without completely ruling out the possible existence of crimes subject to prosecution, believe that it could signal the resort to a security solution to address a highly political issue.

For now, the army stands by its role as "saviour" of the nation and its security at a time of very strong political division, a mission it was always assigned by the constitution itself. The persistence, probably beyond the next elections, of this political polarisation, implying dangers to the stability and security of the country as well as acts of violence and sabotage fed by supporters of the ousted president, not to mention terrorism in Sinai, will keep the army's key position in the political arena.

It can't be ruled out in this context, which will increase the sense of insecurity among the Egyptians and their need for a “strong man,” that a military candidate - possibly the defence minister, as some people are already calling for - stands in the next presidential election... and wins.

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