Is Egypt Closer to a Comeback of the Military?
Francesco Aloisi de Larderel 19 March 2013

The relatively restricted size of the political base of the Morsi Presidency and of the Muslim Brotherhood – evident since the parliamentary elections of January 2012 – constitutes its principal weakness, translates into a partial lack of institutional and political legitimacy, and continues to define the political situation in Egypt today.

Three months have passed since the new Constitution promoted by President Mohamed Morsi has been approved by popular referendum. Popular participation to the vote (32,9%) was even lower than in the Presidential elections in June 2012 (43,4%) and therefore the plurality of 63,8% that approved of the new Constitution can hardly be seen as representing the majority of the Egyptian body politic.

The main political parties of the opposition – now (at least formally) united in a National Salvation Front (NSF) – have substantially refused to take part in the process that led to the approval of the Constitution, arguing that the Constitutional Assembly was dominated by a majority of Islamists, which prevented any dissenting opinion from being heard. And this means that to this day they do not recognise the Constitution and refuse to participate in the elections for a new Parliament. The calls by the Egyptian President for the opening of a dialogue have been repeatedly rebuffed by the NSF.

These elections, which President Morsi had called for the next month of April, have been in the meantime been cancelled by an Administrative Court which held the new electoral law to be unconstitutional, and we will have to wait for the deliberations of a higher Court to know if, when and how they will take place.

In the meantime, on the basis of a Presidential decree, the legislative powers are exercised by the Shura Council, a purely consultative body dominated, again, by Islamists members, a large number of them appointed by the Presidency.

This is obviously a situation of institutional and political paralysis. Nevertheless, Egypt being, at least “de facto”, a presidential regime, Morsi and the Muslim Brothers have been able to advance a double program of islamisation of the Egyptian society and of “brotherization” of many of its structures. This has translated, among many other instances, in a clampdown on the media, and in the appointment of a new Prosecutor General whose independence is put into question by Morsis’s opponents.

These policies have translated in a sharp fall in popularity for the Muslim Brothers. This tendency, which was already evident on the basis of diffuse anecdotal evidence, has been confirmed by the results of the Students Unions elections in the main Egyptian Universities where the MB have suffered resounding defeats in what was, up to now, one of their main political bases. The results of the recent elections within the Journalists Syndicate, also unfavourable to the Brotherhood, appear to confirm the trend.

Part of the on-going street protests are directed not at the President, but at the Muslim Brotherhood as such, whose offices, in Cairo and other cities, have repeatedly been targeted by demonstrations and even attacks. The mantra of the participants is that President Morsi is actually powerless, the country being run for all purposes by the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, with the risk of turning it in a clerical run state, like Iran.

Even the Imams of the State-owned mosques (there are 106.000 of them in Egypt!) are protesting against the attempts of the Brotherhood – through the Ministry for Religious Endowments – to marginalize them and use the mosques for electoral publicity.

But a more serious problem seems to be the proliferation of revolts against the current political authority which have being taking place all over the country, from Cairo, to Port Said, to many mid-sized cities of the Delta. The cycle of riots and repression has created victims that now number in the hundreds. The rage of the rioters – which is not inspired, and therefore cannot be controlled, by the opposition parties – is more and more directed against the Police which has never been reformed and is seen, not without reason, the same institution that defended the regime the Egyptian Spring is supposed to have overthrown.

To further complicate the security situation, the Police itself is often in revolt against the Government, policeman go on strike refusing to perform their duties, and demand the resignation of the Minister of Interior. Their demands range from the refusal of the “brotherisation” of the institution to which they belong, to the refusal of being used to defend the political interests of one party, to the request of a freer use of firearms in repressing disorders.

Unfortunately the Egyptian political scene does not seems to offer a ready political alternative to the Muslim Brothers. The three main political parties within the National Salvation Front cannot compete with the organisational structure of the Brotherhood and, above all, they represent quite incompatible ideologies. The Constitution Party of Mohamed el Baradei is decidedly liberal, and therefore incompatible with the Nasserite/socialist outlook of the Karama Party, led by Hamdeen Sabbahi. And both of them, as representatives of the political upheaval that toppled President Mubarak, are hardly compatible with the movement led by Amr Moussa, for many years Foreign Minister under President Mubarak, and tied to the Army and to the previous regime. Their only common characteristic of the three groups is to be fundamentally secular, but this is hardly a great political asset in a country which is deemed to be one of the most religious in the world.

It is not surprising, in these circumstances, to wonder what will be the role in the coming weeks of the Armed Forces, which up to the fall of President Mubarak have ruled the country, without going to the trouble of governing it directly.

Up to now the position of the Armed Forces – as stated by the Defence Minister, General Ahmed Fattah el Sisi, at the end of January – has been that the present state of affairs risks to lead to the “collapse of the State”. In that case the Army would remain “a solid and cohesive block on which the State could rely”. A statement of serious concern, accompanied by a veiled, though generic, warning.

As a matter of fact the Armed Forces have made their voice heard several times in the last few months on more specific issues. General Sisi denied expressly that the Armed Forces could be infiltrated by Islamists, insisting that anyone who entered military service best forget any allegiances they may have, other than their primary allegiance to the nation. Responding to the decision by the Prosecutor General giving the green light to citizens making arrests, military sources vehemently condemned “attempts to drag the nation in a civil war by the creation of militias . . .”. Military sources also intervened to put to rest rumours that the Government was ready to grant Qatar a franchise for a project to expand and develop a portion of the Suez Canal.

This series of statements confirm that the Armed Forces see themselves as the guarantors of the stability of the Egyptian State and of its integrity, but do not seem to indicate, as of now, a desire for a direct intervention in the political fray. For one thing the accommodation reached by the Armed Forces with President Morsi, and the new Constitution, guarantees their full autonomy within the State, the maintenance of their economic and industrial conglomerate and related privileges, and a substantial degree of impunity for the serious episodes of repression that took place in the few months during which Egypt was directly ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). On the other side the Egyptian military must vividly remember the experience of directly running the country period, after the fall of President Mubarak, for the high political price they had to pay and the serious damage to their prestige they had to suffer.

But the present situation of growing political void and general disorder seems to have brought the issue of a new intervention by the military in the forefront. It is more and more discussed in the Egyptian press, it has been advocated by demonstrations in Nasr City in the beginning of March, and the leader of the salafist Umma Alliance has wowed to fight in the streets the “conspiracy” aimed to bring the military back in power.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that in the last few days there has been a leak of a secret report, written last summer for President Morsi, that highlights the responsibilities of the Egyptian military in the bloody repressions that took place during the period in which the SCAF ruled the country. These responsibilities seem to implicate the then Chief of Staff of the Army, General al Sisi, presently Minister of Defence.

The tension is certainly growing between the Egyptian military establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood, in an atmosphere of reciprocal mistrust. The Egyptian military have certainly not a great appetite for intervention in the political arena, and the subsequent responsibilities of political rule. But events could be accelerated by the progressive worsening of the economic situation. Total reserves have fallen by two thirds since the beginning of the revolution, and are now below the 15 billion US$ needed to cover three months of imports. The substantial deficit in the balance of payments ensures that they will continue to shrink. For a country which is the first importer of wheat in the world this could mean very serious trouble in a not distant future.

President Morsi has been up to now unable to conclude an agreement to obtain the support of the IMF, or unwilling to accept the conditions. The only alternative, to buy time, seems to be aid from external sources.