This is a guest post by Matthew Kimmel. Last week, Matt wrote an article on Saudi Arabia’s troubled Eastern Province, titled “The Most Important Uprising You Haven’t Heard Of.” He is a graduate of Arizona State University and recently finished his M.A. in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. Earlier this year, he conducted original research and interviews with military officials in Egypt.
History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.
Right now, Egypt appears to be going through a flashback to the events of February of 2011. Masses of demonstrators are in Tahrir Square protesting against a president who has taken autocratic steps to consolidate his power and disarm his opponents. There are clashes between the president’s supporters and a coalition of liberal and youth activist groups as Morsi claims that demonstrators are foreign elements (given how many leaders in the middle east have made this claim recently, one must wonder if there are bands of foreign troublemakers simply on tour throughout the region). And just like the period before the fall of Mubarak, the military appears to remain indifferent.
This should not be a surprise. The best way that the Egyptian military will be able to retain the powers that it has worked so hard to preserve since the fall of Mubarak will be to remain an impartial observer until it can latch on to whatever group appears to be the victor of this newest round of political conflict. This is due to several factors: the way the military perceives itself and how it was treated by the Egyptian people when SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) ruled Egypt from February 2011 through June 2012; the benefits that Morsi has offered the military; and the uncertain political atmosphere that is percolating in Cairo.
There are two key phrases that emerged repeatedly during this author’s talks with Egyptian military leaders last year which encapsulate how the military sees itself: “the Egyptian army is the guardian of the revolution,” and “the army and the people are in one hand.” The Egyptian army sees itself as the preserver and guardian of Nasser’s revolution, as well as supporters of the Egyptian people. It is they who protect the Egyptian people from both the felool (elite and aristocratic elements of society) and foreign influence, and who ensure the dignity and stability of Egypt.
However, when it took the reins of power in the period following the fall of Mubarak it found itself over its head. The military always had some measure of insulation from the day-to-day activities of governance, and once that layer of insulation was gone it quickly found itself struggling. Incidents like the Maspero protests and the al Ahly soccer riots showed that the military simply did not have the PR experience to deal with governing from the front as opposed to behind the scenes. As such, the military found itself eager to return to the barracks, where it could continue to control large swaths of the Egyptian economy and preserve its role in society without having to deal with the annoyance of day-to-day governance.
Despite the claims of many, the elite of the Egyptian military had no desire to continue to rule, as long as a few key aspects of power were kept intact. These aspects of power could essentially be split into three categories: the preservation of the economic privileges of the military, the ability to conduct military trials for civilians, and a lack of government oversight towards the military budget. The military was thankful that they found a leader who would give them all of this in Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood member who won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election in June.
Morsi’s announcement on November 22 granting himself massive new powers overshadowed a number of important constitutional articles. Key among those were articles 197 and 198. These two articles pledge that the military budget will not be subject to parliamentary oversight, and that it will still be able to try civilians in courts under conditions that will be established later. These agreements are exactly what the military wants. It keeps their economic power and the ability to control “rogue” elements of society that may threaten their power. These powers are of key importance to the army, and since Morsi has given these key points to them, the military should have no desire to get rid of him. However, as the events of February 2011 show, the military will throw a leader under the bus if it feels threatened. As such, no one should expect the military to actively oppose Morsi. But no one should also expect the military to side with Morsi if it looks like the protests against him have larger popular support.
For right now the pro- and anti-Morsi groups appear to be roughly equal in strength. As such, the military can be expected to maintain an appearance of neutrality. They have already tried to display themselves as an independent arbiter of justice by using their might to separate pro- and anti-Morsi supporters and agreeing to oversee the constitutional referendum on December 15. The military is also attempting to stage unity talks in an effort to both relieve the tension and show they are trying to act as neutral arbitrators. Compounding these efforts are statements made by the army that they will ensure that the constitutional referendum will be neutral. However, given the rapidly evolving nature of the situation in Egypt, this could change very quickly.