The sense of incompleteness which, from the start, had appeared to characterize Egypt’s ‘first revolution’ – including the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi to the presidency last year – now manifests itself in waves of civil insurrection. Mursi’s civilian presidency may have brought an end to more than sixty years of de facto military rule – the succession of Egyptian presidents (Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak) who followed the Egyptian monarchy were all military men who had sought to re-invent themselves – but, as current events prove, the military continues to be the single most important institution in the country.
Indeed, as the civilian revolt against the Mursi administration grows both more vigorous and more divisive in nature the military is again emerging as the key ‘arbiter’ in a country which, given its lack of experience with western–style democracy, possesses no other institution to handle political conflict.
Setting aside the euphoria that had characterized the ousting of the Mubarak regime in 2011 the Egyptian military quickly installed itself as a barrier between some measure of civil stability and collapse into sectarian chaos. Indeed, during the interregnum between the toppling of Mubarak and the election of Mursi to the presidency, the army had served as a critical caretaker bridge between Mubarak’s ousting and Mursi’s installation as President and even after Mursi had assumed office the resentment of the various religious and secular groups opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood still left his administration dangerously vulnerable to further shocks.
Those military dictators who successively ran Egypt since 1952 may have been no more than autocratic dictators, but they represented, first, a considerable measure of internal stability and, secondly, the assurance that a volatile and unstable Egypt would not create a condition of permanent tension, even armed conflict, in the Middle East. It is Egypt’s – specifically its military’s – role in ensuring a measure of peace in the Middle East by ensuring stability within that made the country a valued ally of the United States. That is why the Camp David Accords that brought peace between Egypt and Israel continues to be regarded as a landmark Middle East diplomatic initiative and by far the single most significant foreign policy accomplishment of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. That is why, too, after he had signed the Camp David Accords, Sadat ceased being a one-time military dictator and became a Nobel Laureate even though his atrocious human rights record at home rendered him altogether undeserving of such an accolade.
Accordingly, while the Arab Spring toppled a despotic and highly unpopular ruler, it removed Washington’s most vital ally in ensuring the continuity of peace in the Middle East. More than that Washington would have been far from reassured with a Muslim Brotherhood President who had earlier been imprisoned for what it considered to be insurrectionist crimes.
A year into Mursi’s presidency the wheel has come full circle. Today marks the forty eight-hour deadline given Mursi by his political opponents to quit the presidency. It is, perhaps, a less than shocking development. His election to office had left both his domestic opponents and Washington looking over their shoulders for signs of doctrinaire rule and there are indications that the Mursi administration may have obliged.
It was as much the military as his domestic political opponents that had posed concerns for Mursi after his election to office in June last year. Both, in separate but distinctly menacing ways, now threaten the continuity of his presidency. Additionally, both now seem set to play equally critical roles in Egypt’s ‘second revolution.’
After his election to the presidency Mursi had sought – or at least so it seemed – to recruit the military to his side by – as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces – passing over at least two more senior army Generals and naming General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as Defence Minister. That does not appear to have done much to consolidate his position with the army. As his domestic opponents have upped the tempo of their protests, el-Sissi has been sending increasingly transparent signals that the military is monitoring the situation. One of the latest of his series of ominous pronouncements has asserted that “those who think that we (the military) are oblivious to the dangers that threaten the Egyptian state are mistaken. We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control.” That is a clear a signal as the military can send that the days of Mursi’s presidency might be numbered.
In effect and as protest against President Mursi’s rule grows more intense, what the Egyptian military has done is to send an unambiguous signal – to its domestic and external audiences and perhaps most pointedly to President Mursi – that it intends to remain central and highly relevant in the country’s evolving political landscape, and specifically in Egypt’s ‘second revolution.’