Deadlock in Cairo

Hazem Kandil writes: The Egyptian revolt is trapped in a balance of weakness. None of the key actors has the power to consolidate a new regime, or even to resurrect the old one. Alliances are necessary, but nobody knows which will last. Every combination seems equally plausible, but each would lead the country in a very different direction. Egypt’s old regime depended on a ‘power triangle’: an uneasy partnership between the military (primarily the army), the security services (the police and secret police under the control of the Interior Ministry), and the political establishment. The uprising in January 2011 disrupted this delicate balance. It inadvertently enhanced the leverage of the military, left the security services largely untouched and created a political vacancy which Islamists, secular revolutionaries and old regime loyalists all scrambled to fill. The three political rivals would find themselves playing a game of musical chairs under the fretful gaze of the military and the security services, and it isn’t yet clear who is the winner.

The armed forces facilitated the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak because – contrary to the academic consensus – they had become the least privileged partner in Egypt’s ruling bloc. Eager to increase its autonomy and regional influence, the army welcomed the chance to renegotiate the existing power arrangements. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and flirted with the idea of restructuring the Interior Ministry and restricting the powers of the security services. But since no one turned up who was powerful enough to replace Mubarak, the SCAF was forced instead to co-operate with the ministry to avert chaos. By the summer of 2012, it was ready to hand over government to anyone who seemed reasonably capable, so long as they pledged to respect the military’s status. The Muslim Brotherhood was the most plausible candidate. Its familiar willingness to appease whoever was in power made it a safer ally than any of the embittered remnants of the old regime. And the hostility of its rhetoric where Israel is concerned had the twin advantages of justifying the maintenance of a strong army, while alarming Western powers just enough to make them accept the army’s continued oversight: the army would curb Islamist excess, should there be any.

Mohamed Morsi was sworn in in June, and six weeks later, on 12 August, he managed to reshuffle the armed forces’ general command without offending military sensibilities. The defence minister and chairman of the SCAF, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the military chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan, were decorated and given honorary roles after leaving their posts. Other high-ranking officers did even better: the outgoing commander of the navy was put in charge of the Suez Canal; the commander of the air defence force became chairman of the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation; and another senior SCAF officer, Mohamed al-Assar, became assistant minister of defence. To further emphasise his reluctance to rock the boat, Morsi chose their replacements from a list of senior commanders. The director of military intelligence, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was handed the defence portfolio, and the commander of the Third Field Army, Sedky Sobhy, was promoted to chief of staff. On the night these measures were announced, Morsi promised – it was a telling speech – to respect the armed forces’ independence. He also promised weapons and training from a wider range of sources, i.e. not just the US. In November the army was able to buy Turkish drones for the first time. Morsi also gave his support to the army’s counterterrorist operations in Sinai in order to satisfy the military’s overwhelming desire to re-establish sovereignty over the peninsula, demilitarised since the Camp David Accords. The extent of the Islamists’ deference to the military was made plain when the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to retract derogatory remarks he had made about the military’s willingness to bend to the wishes of politicians. And at the end of February, it was reported that Morsi had cancelled plans to replace the now intransigent al-Sisi as minister of defence in light of the armed forces’ objections. [Continue reading…]

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