Hope of a compromise in Egypt between army and Brotherhood has now vanished

Opinion : Armed forces seeking to defend a privileged position that dates back to 1952 coup


The intervention by the Egyptian military to remove from office the first elected president in the country’s long history, and the brutal crackdown on those who protested against the military’s return to the political arena, seem to take Egypt into uncharted territory.

In fact, we are witnessing the reassertion of long-standing political dynamics as the Egyptian armed forces seek to defend a structure of privileges and prerogatives which has developed since the military coup of 1952 which overthrew the monarchy and established the modern republic of Egypt.

The election to the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, was followed by 12 months of political and economic mismanagement. The new Islamist regime alienated many of its own followers as well as a broad coalition of forces that had opposed it.

Controversial appointments to key positions were designed to entrench the power of the Brotherhood but enraged opponents. The most provocative of these was the designation of a member of the radical Islamist Gama’a Islamiyya as governor of Luxor, site of an infamous 1997 massacre for which that organisation was responsible, in which 62 tourists were murdered.

In November of last year, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration which gave him sweeping executive powers. Faced with widespread opposition to this move, he backed down but then pushed through a new constitution, hurriedly drafted in a process boycotted by much of the opposition, and seen as flawed by many.

All of this culminated this summer in a return to the streets of large numbers of protesters, with calls for Morsi’s resignation, a new constitution and fresh elections. These calls were answered when, in early July, the military detained Morsi and other leading Islamists, overthrew the government, and installed the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, as interim president.

Fresh start
Mansour inaugurated a nine-month transition process designed to remedy the flaws of the post-Mubarak process. It will see amendments to the constitution followed by fresh parliamentary and presidential elections and, ostensibly a new start for Egypt. In intervening, the military has enjoyed widespread support across the social spectrum – from Coptic Christian leaders, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and salafi politicians as well as leading secular figures. As a reflection of this, one of the slogans of the 2011 anti-regime movement – ‘the army and the people are one hand’ – is heard once more.

However, the notion that the Egyptian military can function as the agent of a democratic transition falls wide of the mark. The military does occupy a special place in Egyptian public life but it is less as guardian of the national interest and more as defender of privilege and prerogative.

The Egyptian armed forces have assumed a position of great significance in both military and non-military spheres over the years. With 450,000 personnel, it is the largest in Africa and the Arab world. Despite the fact that Egypt has not fought a war since 1973 – apart from an involvement in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait in 1991, described as “lamentable” by US officers – the defence budget increased from $2.68 billion in 1997 to nearly $5 billion in 2012. This is under the exclusive control of the military, as is US military assistance of $1.3 billion each year. Furthermore, there exists an official military economy which employs 40,000 people and generates income of nearly $300 million per annum that is independent of the public treasury.

Officers enjoy access to subsidised goods and services and a wide array of government posts on retirement. Former military personnel occupy thousands of key posts in local government and the civil service and sit on the boards of publicly owned utilities.

The result is what Yezid Sayigh has termed an ‘officer’s republic’. None of this comes under any civilian oversight save that of the president who, until the accession to the office by Mohamed Morsi, was always a military man.

The military is also key to the timid response to recent events of Egypt’s closest ally, the United States. The substantial military assistance provided by the US is Egypt’s reward for keeping the peace with Israel. Other concerns are counter-terrorism and the security of the Suez Canal, through which most oil exports from the Persian Gulf transit.

In any case, the US has declining leverage in Egypt (US aid is dwarfed by the $12 billion package recently announced by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE).

The policy of the Obama administration reflects this. The European Union is seen in a more positive light. The EU is Egypt’s largest trading partner and the fact that Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy visited Morsi in detention and has vocally condemned the state of emergency might suggest a possible role for the EU in helping to resolve the current situation.

Hope recedes
However, the likelihood of such a resolution in the near future has receded hugely after the violence of the past week. Before the brutal attacks on the protest camps, there was hope that a compromise could be arrived at in the form of the lifting of the threat of military action, the release and reinstatement of Morsi, followed by his resignation and fresh elections. This would have provided legal and constitutional cover for a new turn in Egypt’s transition.

However limited the hope of such a scenario being played out before, there is none now. It seems clear that the military sees no prospect for any serious level of involvement on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian political life in the near future.

The old regime, under Mubarak, practised the politics of exclusion. The Brotherhood in power did the same. The reassertion of military privilege, the declaration of a state of emergency and the near-impossibility of dialogue between Islamists and the interim regime suggest that Egypt is heading for an extended period in which that long-standing pattern continues to prevail. Quite what form of cohabitation between the military and civilian political actors emerges is yet to be seen but stability remains some way off.

Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle Eastern politics and political Islam in the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD.

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