Egypt's army and presidency: A delicate dance
Ahmed Eleiba, Thursday 28 Feb 2013
Speculation has mounted in recent weeks as to the army's possible return to domestic politics. Analysts and military sources, however, appear quick to dismiss the notion as unrealistic

In a curious development, calls were made last week for the army to return to politics and power. An estimated 2,000 people staged a march to this end in Nasr City, inaugurating an agenda of similar activities that may give rise to a distinct movement. So far, most of the faces in the group are unfamiliar to the public.

Many are retired military officers. From interviews with some of the demonstrators, it appears that the call for the return of the army is primarily inspired by fears of the 'Brotherhoodisation' of the state and alleged attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the army.

While the demonstration may have reflected a level of anger and anxiety among some retired army officers, any realisation of their stated aims is difficult to conceive. A national security expert who previously headed the Information and Assessment Department of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS) told Al-Ahram Weekly that if the army was called in to help this implies its support for the president and his claims to legitimacy.

"In view of the rising costs of the political crisis at a certain phase in the wave of strikes, when all political cards have been played, only the army will be left to deploy in the streets in order to protect the domestic front," he said. "Such a situation would mean that political life had ceased and the country had entered a phase of anarchy."

The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, objects to the phrase 'Brotherhoodisation of the army' and denies that it is attempting to "infiltrate" Egypt's armed forces.

Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein told the Weekly: "This is impossible in view of the organisation of the military establishment. Brotherhood members who are in the army today owe their primary allegiance to the nation and its armed forces, as is the case with Coptic officers and soldiers whose allegiance to the army is not based on sectarian but on patriotic affiliations."

He added: "Even today, some of our members are refused admission into the Military Academy because they are known Brotherhood members."

The relationship between the army and President Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood's ranks, is not as smooth as it may appear. A rumour, originating from a report on Russian television, began to circulate last week that Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi would soon be dismissed as minister of defence.

Ahmed El-Ashqar, a programmer at the Russian television station's Cairo bureau, said that the channel's Russia office had not supplied a source for the report, official or otherwise. The lack of sources led analysts to suspect the report was a kind of trial balloon to test the army's reaction to the idea.

Said Okasha of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies says the release of rumours of El-Sisi's imminent dismissal were a deliberate tactic.

"Rumours like this are used by the governing authorities to market the notion that the president can change the minister of defence more than once as a way to display his power, regardless of whether or not there is a reason for the dismissal," he asserted. "At the same time, it signals an attempt on the part of the ruling authority to engage the army in internal politics, but with the purpose of protecting the seat of government."

A Brotherhood official dismissed this reading. He accused "certain groups at home" of receiving money from abroad in order drive a wedge between the army and the president. The Brotherhood official, who is a close associate of the president, admitted that the rumours had a negative impact on all sides, claiming they had been the work of people in the pay of foreign security agencies.

Defence Minister El-Sisi was known to be on good terms with Morsi while he was director of military intelligence and a member of Egypt's Supreme Military Council. El-Sisi invited Morsi to his office when Morsi was still chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party and it is well known that the Brotherhood regarded El-Sisi as the general who was closest to the group.

El-Sisi is a military man from a religious family, one of whose members was a prominent Brotherhood member. The relationship began to cool off some months ago, with tensions surfacing when El- Sisi invited political forces to talks (which never took place) against the backdrop of mass demonstrations in front of the Presidential Palace. Several statements were issued at the time expressing the army's alarm over mounting political tensions.

Both Brotherhood and GIS sources agree that the relationship between the security agencies and the presidency is hazy.

The Brotherhood official said: "There is no one in these agencies today who works with us with any kind of trust. In fact, contrary to rumours that these agencies are under the control of the Brotherhood, the fact is there are mutual doubts and suspicions. There are security officials who remain in their posts – proof that little has changed. However, because we are now in power and because we are a large entity, they are very careful in how they deal with us."

The GIS source, for his part, believes difficulties in the relationship are not solely the result of the government's political failures but because security agencies – which had worked against the Brotherhood in the past – are now expected to work with it.

"This is difficult and it causes confusion no less acute than the confusion we experienced over 30 years ago after Egypt signed a peace treaty and the GIS was expected to change overnight," he said. "At the time, some of us felt we had no option but to resign. There is a general impression, today, that some agencies are operating in a purely functional context, just to do their job."

Morsi invited El-Sisi to the Presidential Palace in order to put an end to the rumours, issuing a statement reaffirming his confidence in his minister of defence. The army is also expected to issue a statement condemning calls for a return of the military to power.

General Adel Suleiman, a military expert and director of the Cairo-based Centre for Future Studies, told the Weekly: "I don't think the situation is as suspicious as some make it out to be. There are some trends, but there is not a distinct political force calling for the return of the army to politics. And of these trends, some had previously called for an end to military rule and, even if we were to presume a return of the military hypothetically, there is no guarantee that they would not switch around again."

Suleiman dismisses the possibility the army will willingly leave its barracks.

"There are those who think Egypt should be divided into political lots, one of which should go to them because it was they who protested and rebelled against the Mubarak regime, regardless of the fact that elections brought in the Islamist trend," he said. "For all their cries for democracy, they have nothing to do with it because they still see the revolutionary condition as an alternative."

He added: "They seem to have forgotten that the army organised the elections that brought in the president and that it was the army that conducted the referendum on the constitution. Now they think that the army will come to sweep the Muslim Brotherhood – the most organised political force – from power without realising that any coup would mean arresting everyone who had been with the army and then against it. Such scenarios are nonsense."

Some observers believe that the US has a hand in the matter. Military sources say Washington is insisting the army keep out of politics and that when US Secretary of State John Kerry visits Cairo next week, he will convey messages to both the presidency and the army to make Washington's position explicit.

The current flooding of the Rafah tunnels between Gaza and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula may have some bearing on the relationship between the army and the presidency/Brotherhood. Some analysts read this action as indicative of pressures being exerted pitting the army against the Brotherhood, using the latter's relationship with Hamas in the case of the tunnels.

Statements coming out of Gaza seem to bear this out. One Palestinian source said that the tunnels being destroyed were Hamas-operated tunnels, which made him suspect that Hamas was being targeted. Informed sources in Egypt, however, convey the opposite impression. They say that Cairo is fulfilling its commitments in accordance with the recent truce agreement signed between Hamas and Israel, including its pledge to halt arms smuggling through the Gaza tunnels.

Military sources stress that the army issues warnings to people inside the tunnels to evacuate them before proceeding to flood them. That Essam El-Haddad, assistant to President Morsi, issued statements to the effect that Egypt would press ahead with the closure of the tunnels – in spite of outcries from Hamas – indicates that the army and the presidency are working in harmony on the issue.

This assessment is supported by reports from Egyptian sources involved in brokering talks between Palestinian factions that the GIS has been exerting pressure on Hamas to stop dragging its feet on reconciliation with rival Palestinian faction Fatah – an initiative that the Egyptian government is trying to promote.