The political news from Egypt has been dominated by reports of tensions between the powerful military and the country’s Islamist leaders, with news recently leaking that the Supreme Council of Military Forces (SCAF) has been meeting without President Mohammed Morsi to discuss the ongoing political crisis. Cairo is rife with rumors, speculation, and endless debate among the public as well as the political elite about how the military will react to the current turmoil, particularly if the situation escalates and results in more uncontrolled violence and chaos. It seems that many are considering “some sort of intervention” to be almost inevitable at some stage in the future.
Since the election of President Morsi and his surprise firing of Defense Minister Husain Tantawi, the military, with its new leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, has adopted a well-crafted policy of watching closely from a distance and inserting itself only when deemed absolutely necessary. Al-Sissi, who was initially considered to be the Muslim Brotherhood's man in the army, has proven to be a man who speaks his mind. He is endorsed by his soldiers and is not shy about vetoing ideas he perceives as inappropriate or dangerous to Egypt’s national interest (at least from his perspective). The ministerial decree turning Egypt's border with Israel and the Gaza Strip into a five-kilometer-deep closed military zone and flooding the Gaza smuggling tunnels are just two examples.
So what’s next? What if uncontrolled violence erupts? Will the army remain neutral? The options available to the army are not as numerous as many assume. Each has its own risks and dangers and a good chance of failing.
The military's first option involves the leadership trying to prevent a downward spiral of violence through closed-door negotiations to force some sort of consensus — but this failed when attempted repeatedly by SCAF following the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak. Some may argue that al-Sissi can do a better job than Tantawi and Sami Annan, but judging by the military's efforts following Morsi’s November edict and the luncheon invitation extended to the opposition — but allegedly rejected by the president — it is doubtful that al-Sissi can reconcile the irreconcilable. The window of consensus seems to be closing fast.
The second option is to help the Islamist leadership quell any revolt or violent protests. Again, I doubt it. The loose application of the (rather short-lived) emergency law issued by Morsi in the Suez Canal region is an indication that the military is not willing to confront anti-Morsi crowds. Instead in Suez, it focused on securing the canal and public buildings. It is important to understand that a professional army is no substitute for the police. It is not trained for urban conflict. It is also highly unlikely that the army will risk losing its legitimacy among Egyptians by crushing civilians in order to enforce the Islamists’ empowerment. A powerful Islamist leadership will almost certainly sift through the senior cadres within the military to remove the non-Islamists among them. There are already rumors that Morsi tried sacking al-Sissi, to which the army responded with sharp comments.
The third option is a coup. Many have presented this option as if it were feasible and possible, with the potential to succeed, but then only to conclude that the generals could, but will not, resort to such a move. The prevailing opinion among analysts is that “the military does not want to rule again.” I beg to differ. It is not about a lack of desire, but a lack of the right recipe for long-term success. The army will not be able to justify sending its tanks into the presidential palace without one of two preconditions: a replica of January 2011, with millions marching throughout Egypt demanding the departure of Morsi — extremely unlikely in light of the repeated failure of opposing forces to attract widespread participation in their announced protests — or a total collapse in governance, with widespread civil disobedience. In the latter scenario, the Islamists, with their divided parties (Brotherhood and Salafists), would rally behind Morsi to try to avoid a repeat of the 1954 scenario (which is always in the back of their minds). The Islamists of 2013 are more defiant, with a wide constituency. A confrontation with the army would be bloody, a nightmare scenario that the army will try to avoid.
In light of the currently divided political dynamics in Egypt, a “peaceful” coup d’état is simply impossible. An army intervention would lead to possible confrontations with either the Islamist or non-Islamist camp. The generals seem to understand this basic fact. The Islamists also seem to understand it, which is why they amended the election law and set a date for parliamentary elections. For them, legitimacy is the insurance policy that protects them from the junta. With civil obedience and an electoral boycott, however, the elusive legitimacy may not be easily achieved.
The assumption that the army can save Egypt is wrong and dangerous. The price tag of military salvation will be hefty and bloody, a bitter truth that both the public and the elite must understand. Thus far, the army seems to have adopted a policy of redeployment, playing the role of guardians of the state, watching from a distance to see whether the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood will sink or swim. It is ready to reassess according to unfolding events. This may be the safest policy for the generals, but it is not perfect, as the country continues to be minced by the Islamists’ pestle-and-mortar approach to politics versus the opposition’s non-innovative idealism — and no solution in sight.