False alarm: Calls for army's return 'negligible'
Ahmed Eleiba, Thursday 7 Mar 2013
Analysts try to make sense of recent calls by some political quarters for the reinsertion of the Egyptian Armed Forces into domestic politics

The walls of Egypt's capital remain daubed with graffiti, which had once been a memorial to popular antipathy towards the transitional rule of Egypt's Supreme Military Council, as well as documentation of the seminal chapters of the 2011 popular revolt that unseated former president Hosni Mubarak.

From the famous Mohamed Mahmoud Street graffiti that depicted half the face of Mubarak joined to half the face of military council head Mohamed Tantawi; to other graffiti demanding the persecution of military council members; to the launch of Kazeboon, an anti-military council media campaign, the gutsy artwork once evinced indignation and disappointment with the military council and its handling of Egypt's post-revolution phase, which ended last summer with the election of President Mohamed Morsi.

Today, the popular slogan, 'The people and army are one hand,' is back, as certain opposition circles issue calls for renewed military rule. Advocates of the military's reinsertion into the domestic political stage are calling for the army to resume power for a six-month period until fresh presidential elections can be held.

Several residents of Egypt's restive Port Said have gone so far as to mount a campaign aimed at designating Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as Egypt's new head of state.

Gomaa Mohamed, lawyer and founder of the Beit Al-Thawra ('House of Revolution') group, said that those leading the campaign were hitherto seen as former regime loyalists. Some of them, he said, were affiliated with Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), campaigners for failed presidential hopeful (and Mubarak's last prime minister) Ahmed Shafiq, and members of Asfeen ya Rayes ('We're sorry, Mr. president'), a pro-Mubarak group that emerged in the revolution's wake.

"There is no genuine desire to return to military rule," Mohamed asserted. "The campaign was promoted against the backdrop of the debacles of so-called politicians promoting Port Said's secession from Egypt."

He went on to say that those promoting the idea believed that the canal city had been "colonised" by the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which President Morsi hails. These individuals, Mohamed said, mistakenly argue that, as Saad Zaghloul led a popular delegation to the 1919 post-World War I Paris Peace Conference to demand Egypt's independence from British occupation, the same applied to 'Brotherhood colonisation.'

Mohamed went on to say that the 20,000 signatures collected so far were not enough to convince a wary public. "How are they gathering signatures from state institutions, while we are calling for civil disobedience?" he asked.

He added: "This isn't our battle. The collapse of political administration under Brotherhood rule that manifested itself in the woeful scenes of unrest in Port Said is our real battle today."

Amal Sahla, a Port Said-based rights activist and one of the pioneering campaigners for civil disobedience in the city, echoed this sentiment.

Sahla, whose nephew was killed during riots in the canal city on 26 January following a court verdict on the Port Said stadium disaster, argues that Egypt's current political administration has failed to contain the crisis in the canal city.

"The shoestring development budget allocated for the three canal cities [Port Said, Ismailia and Suez], and even the recent reinstatement of Port Said's duty-free zone, was not what the people have been waiting for," she said.

When asked about whether 'The people and army are one hand' slogan would come back into popular use, she said: "The army watched from the sidelines as gross thuggery and unrest took place in the city."

Sahla believes the poor performance of the presidency to tackle the crisis in the restive canal city has prompted some to call for military intervention in the belief that the army would come to the aid of secular forces and hand power over to them.

"We are pressing the president for a satisfactory resolution in a city that has a heroic history," she said. "City residents now see the issue as a matter of dignity."

People in Port Said were not the first to wage the campaign to put El-Sisi in charge. Two other underground offshoots of the dissolved NDP have collected some 15,000 signatures to this end, raising questions about the army's position on the issue.

According to military expert Mohamed Belal, army officials perceive recent protests calling for military reengagement in politics – along with the signature campaign – as a move by some well-meaning individuals to apologise for the earlier 'Down with military rule' slogan and as a reflection of the desire by others to end Islamist rule.

Belal asserted that the small number of signatures collected so far hardly reflects the popular will. Nevertheless, he says, it does sound alarm bells about a potentially impending danger.

Belal lambasted Egypt's opposition forces, accusing them of "political bankruptcy." He censured the National Salvation Front (NSF), Egypt's largest opposition coalition, for pushing for the army's return to politics while boycotting upcoming parliamentary polls.

Military officials have yet to make any official announcements on the signature drive. All statements so far have affirmed that the army is taking the people's side and is standing an equal distance from all political forces.

A military source, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed there were reports of growing discontent within the army over the country's political and economic malaise, as well as the apparent failure to quell mounting unrest.

The source affirmed that the army was "not connected in any way" to the signature campaign. "The army can't simply be summoned by a group of people. It's the national security situation that determines when the army should intervene," he said.

"The situation has not significantly deteriorated, which makes the reintroduction of the army into political affairs unlikely in the near future," the source added.

The "major sin" – as seen by one prominent government official – is the attempt to lure the army back into the political quagmire while the latter is still trying to clean up its image, which was badly tarnished during Egypt's military-administered transitional period. According to this official, some of these attempts are thought to be spearheaded by individuals connected to Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

"The signature campaign will not change the status quo," said military expert General Talaat Mesallam. "The army is well aware of the fallout from the country's ongoing political polarisation."

Justice Minister Ahemd Mekky's consent for official registration of the signatures (powers-of-attorney) at local notarisation offices has only added to the uncertainty of the situation.

A Brotherhood official asserted that the campaign – along with the stance of the minister, who didn’t consult with the presidency – has given rise to confusion within the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party.

Mekky, for his part, has argued that his consent had been meant to placate campaigners.

The move has called into question the stability of the army-presidency relationship, posing the question as to whether the idea might prompt army officers to mount a coup.

As to the ongoing battle between anti-government protesters and police in Port Said, and reports that police and army personnel had exchanged fire following a tense night in the city last week, an eyewitness account refuted this.

Mohamed affirmed that army units – which armed forces spokesmen said had been deployed to secure the local governorate headquarters – had withdrawn from the scene shortly after clashes broke out.

He went on to say that military vehicles had patrolled the city after the clashes extending condolences to the families of the victims, signalling an intention to avoid being dragged into the fight. Meanwhile, military leaders have asserted that they would continue to perform their duty of safeguarding state institutions.