Caught between opposing forces, military is reluctant to step back into politics

After emerging from a tumultuous 18-month period of military rule following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the public has kept an anxious eye out for any signs that the military may be making a comeback.

The latest series of events brought the Armed Forces back under the spotlight, and, in some areas, back on the streets. However, experts say that while the military has no interest in returning to politics, there are attempts by different political groups to drag it back in.

“All political forces are now seeking to have the military enter the political game on their side. This is dangerous, not only for the political order but for the military as well,” says Robert Springborg, professor of National Security Affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School in the US.

Following the eruption of violent clashes in canal governorates last week, the military was deployed to aid police in restoring order.

Clashes broke out as protesters faced off with security forces following mass protests marking the 25 January revolution anniversary, and again after the verdict in the Port Said football massacre sentenced 21 to death. The violence in cities around the country as well as in the capital has left dozens dead, hundreds injured and scores arrested.

Morsy declared a state of emergency in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia governorates, as well as the imposition of a 30-day curfew, which was mostly defied and ignored by residents there.

The official Armed Forces social media pages circulated news and videos of the military’s efforts to secure vital institutions and transport the injured in military planes.

Days after deploying the army to canal areas, the president ratified a law giving military police the right to arrest citizens. Then Monday, the presidency announced that Morsy met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, while the details of the meeting, the second since the new formation of the SCAF, remained secret.

But it was the political commentary made by some military leaders that raised suspicion of its impending return to the political forefront.

Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a speech at a military school that the current situation could lead to the collapse of the state, which some analyzed as a veiled threat of possible military intervention should matters escalate.

Springborg says it is unclear whether the military demanded this increased power or whether the Brotherhood granted it voluntarily. The latter would indicate the Brotherhood’s attempt to use the military to defend itself as well as its control over the state — a role, he says, the military seems reluctant to accept.

“This places the military in a very awkward position, for if indeed it arrests civilian protesters it seems to be siding with the Brotherhood. At this stage, it has not done so and I suspect it will continue to be very wary of using its powers of arrest,” says Springborg.

Experts say that, having incurred significant losses during its time in power, and having already been granted all the guarantees it needs to constitutionally safeguard its institutional interests, there is little motivation for the military to re-engage in politics.

“I think that the position of the military is both clear and sensitive,” says journalist Abdallah al-Sennawy. “It does not want to be involved in politics but if asked to interfere to protect the state, it will,” he says.

As in the assessment of others, Sennawy says the military spent a year as the ruling institution and exited the scene “wounded.” Now, it is attempting to distance itself from any further interference in politics.

However, he adds, developments in the current situation may force it out from behind the scenes.

Its ascent to power as temporary ruler in 2011 occurred in the absence of a president, parliament and a constitution, giving it a political monopoly that put it in an unfavorable light.

The military leadership came under heavy attack for its management of the prolonged transition period, and calls resounded to bring the top SCAF generals to trial for their role in the army’s use of violence against protesters in several bloody confrontations.

In the meantime, previously taboo discussions about the military institution’s affairs became a topic of heated public debate, as well as talks of its clandestine economic activities and accusations of corruption.

Even as Morsy was sworn in as Egypt’s first civilian president, the SCAF remained at the forefront, in some sort of parallel political sphere.

In August, Morsy issued a constitutional declaration that stripped the SCAF of its legislative power and unceremoniously forced top military generals into retirement, most notably former Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and his chief of staff, Sami Anan.

Springborg says the military’s reluctance to play politics may also be attributed to this potentially endangering its unity.

“Although relatively coherent by the standards of other state institutions, the military itself is not of one mind. If it is dragged into the political fray, it will place a huge pressure upon it, possibly sufficient to cause it to crack along political lines,” he says.

As well as having a lot to lose by playing politics, experts say the military has little to gain.

“The Freedom and Justice Party has fulfilled all of its promises to the Armed Forces. There is nothing threatening its interests that would require the Armed Forces to return to politics,” says Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor.

Passed by a 64 percent approval in a referendum in late December, the new Constitution protects the Armed Forces from many of the threats it had feared most.

The new Constitution allows the military to try civilians in military courts if the crime “harms the Armed Forces,” the definition of which is left to the law, despite a long-running campaign by civil society against this practice.

The Constitution also safeguards the secrecy of the military budget, which is to be viewed only by the National Defense Council, largely composed of military men, and presented to the Parliament as one figure, securing the military’s economic interests.

Still, despite its reluctance, differing political powers continue trying to impose a political role on the military.

Hesham Sallam, PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, says that as the Brotherhood continues to stagger along the political path, it is resorting more and more to security-oriented solutions, attempting to force its control via crackdowns on street movements.

The missing link to fully achieving this control, Sallam says, is for the Brotherhood to get the military on board.

“The biggest challenge the Brothers are facing in executing this vision is trying to bring the military on board and make it complicit in the protection of the [Brotherhood]’s political order, such that there would be no room for ambivalence or playing it both ways, as the military’s leadership seems to be doing at the moment,” says Sallam.

Realizing that the police are incapable or unwilling to protect Brotherhood rule, and that relying on its own civilian supporters as it has before can prove costly, Sallam says their only choice is the military.

Springborg, however, argues that the military is far from being completely submissive to the ruling Brotherhood.

“Unless and until Egypt has a democratic polity, the military will remain largely independent,” says Springborg. “As long as the Brotherhood remains in this democracy-wrecking mode, it won’t be established and the military will remain beyond civilian control, open then to attempts at manipulation by various civilian political forces.”

In his column, Islamic thinker Fahmy Howeidy described military statements that stressed its neutrality as puzzling, urging it to side with the elected regime.

“What I understand is that the military institution is not an impartial party in between battling political groups, even those resorting to violence. The normal position is for it to side with the legitimacy that the people have chosen,” he wrote, referring to the elected president.

The ruling regime is not alone in facing accusations of attempting to win over the military. Dostour Party head Mohamed ElBaradei’s call for a national dialogue that included the defense minister raised eyebrows.

“The ruling regime does not mind the military returning to the political scene in order to protect it, even if this means putting it against the people. On the other hand, there are people attempting to utilize the military in order to get rid of the Brotherhood’s rule — both are putting the military under a lot of pressure,” says Sennawy.

In an article published by Bloomberg, Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, argues that by attempting to bring down rather than reform the current ruling regime, the opposition may unknowingly be causing the return of military rule.

“Sincere democrats are making a potentially disastrous tactical error in pushing protests to the point of weakening the legitimacy of democratic government itself,” wrote Feldman. “Worse, well-meaning protesters are opening the door to military intervention — the ultimate form of counterrevolution. No better excuse for a countercoup could be imagined than the democratic government’s failure to control the streets.”

Despite the mounting pressure, Springborg says the military will only interfere when absolutely necessary.

“The corollary is that only the military can save the state if the politicians continue to imperil it. Assuming, then, that the high command comes to the belief that the state is in mortal danger, it would intervene, reluctantly,” he says.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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