Egypt’s Generals Play a Long Game

By stepping out of the public spotlight, the military makes the Muslim Brotherhood vulnerable to its own success.

American and Egyptian army chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen and Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan walk down the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, June 8, 2011
American and Egyptian army chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen and Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan walk down the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, June 8, 2011 (US Navy/Chad J. McNeeley)

The forced retirement of Egypt’s two most senior military officers on Sunday has apparently gone over without much of a fight. President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood seem to be the winners. Or are they?

Before resigning, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who also served as defense minister, and General Sami Hafez Enan, chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, both apparently consulted with the other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body that ruled Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in February of last year. The lack of a challenge, as Issandr El Amrani writes in The Guardian, “suggests that, essentially, there has been a successful coup within the military, in alliance with Morsi.”

We also know this new military leadership is willing to give Morsi the powers their predecessors had refused him — Morsi could not have regained control without their help. This speaks not of a triumphant civilian president getting the generals in line but of a confluence of interests.

The deadly assault of Sinai militants on an Egyptian border outpost a week before the personnel changes “provided the opportunity for Morsi and his uniformed allies to move against the army’s old guard,” according to Amrani.

Just how supportive is he new army guard of the Islamist president though? In The National Interest, Aaron David Miller suggests that Enan and Tantawi stepped aside willingly so that the military would no longer be perceived as being “in charge.” Having acquired power, at least in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians, “Morsi and the Brothers are now vulnerable to their own success,” he writes.

They now must govern, manage and produce. And to do that effectively in a country like Egypt is no small achievement. In short, it’s all but impossible to meet the expectations that have been rising ever since Mubarak was ousted.

The Brothers may have maneuvered themselves into the worst of all possible situations. They won’t succeed in relieving Egypt’s crushing economic problems any more than Mubarak did but in the process of trying to manage, they could compromise their principles and lose their ideological cachet.

Since the revolution, the Egyptian government has run high deficits while the country’s foreign exchange reserves are nearly depleted. Saudi Arabia has provided emergency loans to the country’s interim military rulers but since the Muslim Brotherhood usurped power, the kingdom, which abhors the Islamist group and supported the opposition Salafist al-Nour Party in the elections, has all but pulled the plug.

To maintain security in Sinai they may be forced to confront fellow Islamists and keeping control over the border with Gaza could bring tensions with Hamas.

Finally, in the cruelest of ironies, they’re stuck supporting a peace with Israel they can’t stand but need to maintain, since it attracts direct foreign investment and donors who want to know that Egypt is guaranteed a peaceful future.

Accidental Occidental agreed. “This is their exit strategy,” he writes of the generals.

Attacks in the Sinai, power outages and water shortages are now dropped cleanly in the Muslim Brotherhood’s lap. Any public anger is no longer directed toward the military-industrial complex but toward the civilian government.

Behind the scenes, the army’s position is unchanged which puts it right where it wants to be: in control but without the bother of public scrutiny.

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