Know Your Egyptian Generals

Know Your Egyptian Generals

CAIRO — The rules of Egyptian politics just changed. On July 1, mere hours after the end of massive protests against President Mohamed Morsy’s administration, Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi delivered an ultimatum giving the vying political forces 48 hours to compromise — or else the military would unilaterally "declare a road map" for the country’s future.

The Egyptian military, of course, played a key role in forcing Hosni Mubarak from office — but many had assumed its days of playing an overtly political role were over. In August 2012, Morsy dismissed Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the military junta that governed Egypt following Mubarak’s fall. In an interview later that year with the New York Times, the president batted aside a suggestion that Tantawi had resigned voluntarily. "No, no, it is not that they ‘decided’ to do it," he said. "The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop."

Morsy subsequently appointed Sissi as defense minister and the new military commander. The general received advanced training at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania and attracted some criticism during the 2011 uprising when he defended the military’s notorious "virginity tests" of female protesters. But needless to say, any speculation that he would be more pliant than his predecessor has just been disproved: As an unnamed advisor to Morsy said of the ultimatum, "We understand it as a military coup."

The United States is getting slammed from both sides in this episode. While protesters accuse President Barack Obama of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, those close to Morsy suspect the military received Washington’s blessing for its move. "The conviction within the presidency is that [the coup] won’t be able to move forward without American approval," said one advisor.

So, what are Egypt’s generals really thinking? Nobody is spilling the beans right now about their plans, but many researchers have studied how the Egyptian military approaches politics in Cairo. Joshua Stacher, who wrote a book comparing regime elites in Syria and Egypt, paints a picture of the Egyptian military as a fundamentally conservative force, intent on constraining the energy on the street so it can preserve its own interests. "These are elites from a regime only partially changed, who are attempting to reconstitute the system in their own image," he wrote for FP.

Other researchers suggest that the Egyptian military is more circumspect about its ability to control Egyptian politics. In this reading, the generals were distressed by protesters’ backlash against them during the post-Mubarak transitional period and are looking for a way to stay behind the scenes. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven Cook put it in a blog post today, the military’s goal is "to rule, but not govern."

Whatever the generals are thinking, the military and the Brotherhood have a long history of striking temporary alliances. Ever since the days of the Egyptian monarchy, wrote national security scholar Robert Springborg in an article for FP last year, "for a brief period ruler and Brothers ‘cohabitate,’ but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination."

Such history, Springborg suggested, meant that the current military-Brotherhood alliance was also "inherently unstable." On that point, at least, there can be no more doubt.