Army Chief Warns Egypt on the Brink of Collapse

Egypt’s military might not actually be that concerned about the rising political unrest.

An Egyptian soldier watches a demonstration outside the presidential palace in Cairo, December 19, 2012
An Egyptian soldier watches a demonstration outside the presidential palace in Cairo, December 19, 2012 (Omar Kamel)

Egypt’s army chief warned on Tuesday that political unrest in the country is pushing it to the brink of collapse.

Colonel General Abdul Fatah Khalil Al-Sisi, who succeeded Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as commander-in-chief of the Egyptian armed forces last year and also serves as defense minister, wrote on an official army Facebook page, “The continuation of the struggle of the different political forces […] could lead to the collapse of the state.”

Sisi was picked by Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in June of last year when the army handed over power to the elected leader. It had governed the Arab nation for more than a year after the resignation of veteran president Hosni Mubarak, himself a former air force chief, in February 2011.

Almost seven months after Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, won a runoff presidential election against former prime minister and air force commander Ahmed Shafik, Egypt’s politics and society remain deeply polarized. Protesters rallied in Alexandria and Cairo, the capital, as well as three cities on the Suez Canal on Monday where Morsi imposed emergency rule after violent demonstrations killed 42 in Port Said alone in recent days.

Egypt’s economy, meanwhile, is teetering on the brink of an even deeper crisis as the country struggles to import oil and the costs of food and fuel are rising as result of inflation.

Liberal and secular Egyptians have been alarmed what they perceive as powergrabs on the Muslim Brotherhood president’s part. Morsi pushed through a referendum on a new constitution last month that was written exclusively by Islamists and representatives of the military. He also shielded himself and the upper chamber of parliament, which is the only acting legislative body since a third of the lower house elections were invalidated by the courts in June, from prosecution. Reelections are expected to start next month.

The army has retained its privileged position under the new charter. It prescribes that the defense minister must be a serving officer. The military controls its own budget and maintains a right to arrest and try citizens.

Despite the heightened unrest, the army is unlikely to retake control. Indeed, Aaron David Miller suggested in The National Interest last year that it stepped aside willingly so the Muslim Brotherhood would be blamed for the country’s spiraling economic and political crisis. “They now must govern, manage and produce,” he wrote about the Islamists, while it is “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.

Tourism, Egypt’s main source of foreign revenue, has come to a virtual standstill since the revolution that toppled Mubarak. In order to lure Westerners back to the country, the ruling party can ill afford to impose its preferred version of Islamic law which would ban alcohol and force women to wear a headscarf at least.

To maintain security in the Sinai, where insurgent violence has been rising since the collapse of the old regime, the Islamists could be forced into a confrontation with Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that controls the Gaza Strip. It has benefited from the unrest in Sinai to smuggle goods and weapons into the Palestinian territory.

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 wrote 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.

For all Sisi’s recriminations, the army has got what it wants: the very same powers it enjoyed during the Mubarak era, if without the public scrutiny it suffered when it governed the country on an interim basis immediately after his fall.