The soundtracks of 007 movies 'Live and Let Die' and 'Skyfall' have been particularly useful for understanding the relations between Egypt's Minister of Defence General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi, which is significant for grasping the country’s deepening political and economic crisis.
The on-going clashes that have been taking place in Egypt since the commemoration of the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on 25 January 2013 have unveiled the basis of the military’s strategy towards the Muslim Brotherhood. For political analysts, the position of the military establishment in Egypt and its relation to President Morsi has been a perplexing matter, especially after his removal of the long-serving minister of defence Field Marshal Tantawi in August 2012.
Some have argued that for the first time in Egypt’s history, the military establishment has been subordinated to a civilian president who is democratically elected, regardless of his affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood. As time passes, and as the political crisis intensifies, the disparity between the military and the presidency becomes evident and harder to ignore.
While the presidency struggles to survive, the military watches the Muslim Brotherhood’s decline with amusement. General El-Sisi, a religiously pious military leader deeply respected within the officer corps, has tailored the military’s strategy towards President Morsi and the Brotherhood. Such a strategy is perfectly manifested in Sir Paul McCartney’s James Bond song ‘Live and Let Die’.
El-Sisi’s strategy is informed by the SCAF’s daunting experience in power for a year and half, when it was harshly criticised for its inability to handle the transitional period. Egypt’s new defence minister made the restoration of the military’s "prestige" and appealing image his prime goal.
He appointed an army spokesperson, who became responsible for answering media inquiries and reflecting the army’s professionalism and discipline. Through his Facebook page, which has almost 100,000 subscribers, the army spokesperson publishes news, pictures and videos of the army’s achievements in enhancing Egypt’s security and stability, with almost no mention of President Morsi, reflecting the military’s indifference towards the political leadership.
The Muslim Brotherhood, however, has contributed to the development of the military’s ‘live and let die’ strategy that, while appealing in the beginning, turned into the president's worst nightmare. The Brotherhood's constant fear and distrust of the military has made them suspicious of military leaders’ actions.
This was evident when clashes erupted in front of the presidential palace last December, in the aftermath of mass protests against Morsi’s constitutional decree which granted him unlimited powers. General El-Sisi called on all political forces for a dialogue to solve the political deadlock that the country was suffering from. The presidency was outraged by the military’s intervention in the political process and pressed the ministry of defence to withdraw its initiative.
On the day of the proposed gathering, the ministry of defence had to call off the meeting. While the presidency celebrated its power over the military establishment, pushing it to withdraw its invitation, the army chief remained silent, waiting to reap the rewards of the presidency’s floundering. The Muslim Brotherhood sought to appease the military by granting it more privileges in the new constitution in order to guarantee its neutrality.
According to the new constitution, the minister of defence should be a military officer, the military budget remains practically unchecked by civilians, and more shockingly, military tribunals for civilians became constitutional. Enough guarantees not only to keep the military out of politics but also to win the military to the president’s side in situations of crisis? Not really.
The relations between the presidency and the military came into question only a few weeks after the constitution was ratified. While fierce clashes took place in Cairo and many other governorates to commemorate the revolution's second anniversary, the Suez Canal cities (Suez, Ports Said and Ismailia) witnessed bloody clashes, especially after a football violence verdict, leading to the death of more than 50 and the injury of over a thousand.
Given the police's inability to handle the situation, along with the strategic importance of the Suez Canal, which was only metres away from the clashes, the president decided to deploy the army in the Suez Canal cities and called for an urgent meeting with the National Defence Council (NDC), composed of key military and police leaders including the ministers of defence and interior, and headed by the president.
The NDC released a statement according to which it has granted itself the right to declare a state of emergency and called for national dialogue. More importantly, however, was that the statement reflected nothing but the weakness of the presidency vis-à-vis the military.
The statement included a clause in which the NDC, headed by the president, stressed that "the army belongs to the people" and that it will always stay neutral. One cannot help but remember a similar statement made by SCAF after its first meeting without Mubarak, only few days after the eruption of the revolution in 2011.
While it is true that it was Mubarak’s absence from the SCAF that gave the statement its weight, Morsi’s presence in the NDC meeting, however, is what precisely undermined the presidency and revealed its inability to block such an unnecessary statement from being published.
As the situation deteriorated, Morsi declared a state of emergency and curfew in the Suez Canal cities for 30 days. Morsi’s declaration came in a televised speech where he appeared nervous and threatened fiercer measures in case of non-compliance. There was no better opportunity for the military to watch Morsi’s decay than this one.
The Muslim Brotherhood do not seem to learn from their predecessors. In 1977, the military imposed a curfew during the ‘food riots’ only after Sadat agreed to withdraw all economic decisions that increased prices. Without concessions from Morsi’s side, it was impossible for the military to intervene. As a matter of fact, Egyptians mocked Morsi’s curfew and organised demonstrations that started after the curfew time. Youth in Suez and Ismailia organised football tournaments in celebration of the curfew. Street weddings and fireworks were also reported in Port Said to defy Morsi’s decision.
It is not surprising that the military enjoyed public defiance of the curfew. The commanders of the second and third field armies stationed in Suez and Ismailia declared that they would not shoot protestors and will only "try" and implement the curfew through "dialogue." The truth is, they have never tried.
Pictures of protestors marching the streets during the curfew surrounded by smiling army soldiers were spreading in social media. More interestingly, the circulation of a video showing army officers playing football with protestors during the curfew was just another blow to Morsi’s authority.
To add to the embarrassment of Morsi and the Brotherhood, the army spokesperson posted numerous pictures of the commanders of the second and third field armies visiting injured protesters, who were allegedly shot by the president’s police.
The generals showed their support for injured courageous protestors and have even given them gifts on behalf of General El-Sisi, who has also given orders to treat some of them in military hospitals. No wonder the president, Muslim Brotherhood officials and ministers were unable to compete with the military on this occasion.
While General El-Sisi’s winning ‘live and let die’ card seems successful in keeping the military theoretically out of the political struggle while exposing the decline of the Muslim Brotherhood, the general did warn about a 'Skyfall.'
In a recent statement by the defence minister, considered the strongest since his appointment, he warned that the political struggle between the various political forces might lead to the "collapse of the Egyptian state."
It seems that General El-Sisi is actually warning the Muslim Brotherhood against using the damaging card of 'die and let die’. As the relations between the Muslim Brothers and the military are turning into a zero-sum game, the Brotherhood can never play with El-Sisi’s ‘live and let die’ card, for Egypt may survive the perishing of the Brotherhood, but not of the military.
The Muslim Brotherhood might have thought of playing the ‘die and let die’ card only to gain some time to reorganise itself and reframe its relations with the military. Probably the Brotherhood's winning bid would be to develop a ‘live and let live’ strategy, which would mean that they may have to get rid of Morsi and/or offer a number of concessions to various political forces as well as to the military.
While Egypt has a chance of surviving the ‘Skyfall' scenario if the ‘live and let live’ card is played, it seems, however, that the only cards on the table at the moment are those of ‘live and let die’ and ‘die and let die’.
*Mona El-Kouedi has recently submitted her PhD thesis to the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She is currently a Research Fellow at the NATO Defence College in Rome. The opinions expressed in this article are her own, and must not be attributed to the NATO Defence College or to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.