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Military intervention and Egypt’s future

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Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

The military may be coming – and it seems like everyone knows and is waiting for it, except the Muslim Brotherhood. The irony is: they are the ones who have the most to lose.

A new intervention into governance by the Egyptian armed forces is something that many in the political, social and economic elite are clamouring for. They’re not all on the same page in that regard, and people ought to be honest about that. Some people just have it in for the MB, and always would have had – regardless of whether or not the MB had been successful in taking Egypt forward along the transition towards a second republic.

There are others who (and let us also be equally frank in this regard) prefer a military intervention, because it removes the MB from the political playing field, thus giving them a political advantage they might not already have. Politics is hard work – and many are tempted to do away with that hard work in favour of a military intervention that would remove their adversaries.

There are, however, those who are not necessarily calling for such an intervention – but are nonetheless expecting it to happen. They see the pound fall in value against the dollar; they see the supply of wheat becoming more problematic; the supply of petrol and diesel diminishing; food prices potentially rising; and looming power cuts as the summer draws closer, putting pressure on the country’s electrical infrastructure.

In other words: a state akin to a slow moving train-wreck. With security becoming more and more of an issue, the propensity for that train to suddenly speed into overdrive is not beyond the realm of possibility. If the economic troubles of Egypt then turn into real threats to public order, with riots and the like, the state’s security services are not likely to be able to keep a lid on it – and at that point, the military may feel obliged to intervene.

People ought not to be so idealistic about what this scenario could look like. The military’s conduct over the eighteen months it directly governed Egypt is a model for how not to conduct a transitional process. Indeed, much, if not most, of the problems that currently face Egypt are down to the military’s mismanagement of that period. While General Al-Sisi is, by all accounts, an extremely smart individual, it remains to be seen whether or not he would be able to conduct an intervention that would leave the country better off than before.

Nor, it should be stated, does the military want to intervene. It doesn’t. The military’s standing in the country at the end of the governing period was extraordinarily good (all things considered) – but it was still markedly less than in the months after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. The military does not want to be in that position again. Indeed, who would want to be responsible for such a mammoth task?

However, if public disorder does go beyond a certain point, it is hard to see the military simply staying on the side-lines. It would then have to deal with certain challenges.

The first is the threat to the democratic and pluralistic quotient of Egyptian politics. No matter how you slice it, an independent move by the Egyptian military means that the military continues to be above civilian control – and an intervention would almost definitely be against the elected government’s wishes.

Ethically and morally, that is not a particularly good way to begin a transition. Having said that, very few people are likely to care. The military’s position in the country, and in public opinion, is the envy of any political force anywhere. If it was to construct a decent enough cover story, the intervention could be packaged as ‘supporting democracy’ – and enough people outside and inside of Egypt would be more than willing to go along with it.

The second challenge would be how to reintroduce economic stability – a task that would require the military to deal directly with ‘consensus politics’. They would need to build a consensus on economic issues with the prime political forces in the country, which command the loyalty of the expertise of the country. Would those forces work with them? Potentially, probably – there would be some whose principles would keep them back from engaging with a military junta, but that might actually encourage the military to create a proper road map that ensured reform and restructuring during the interim, and an exit strategy within a certain time period.

That would bring the military to the third challenge: a political road map that actually works. In an ideal situation, that would bring together the main presidential candidates that would be partial to such an arrangement – excluding Ahmad Shafiq. That would necessitate the involvement of Amr Moussa, to bring on board forces allied to the former regime without actually getting a hardcore ‘felool’ candidate.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who has little if any grassroots support, would be important for international recognition, and international recognition of a civilian body would be necessary for macroeconomic assistance. Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, if they consented to being involved, would be critical to ensuring the political road map had a civilian face that was genuinely bought into on the ground. Ideally, that would also mean the involvement of Mohammed Morsi – but it is difficult to consider how that would be possible if the military jumped in, as they would in this scenario.

This brings us all to that final piece of the puzzle. If public order diminishes to the point that the military feels obliged to step in, it is hard to see how they could do so while remaining acquiescent to President Morsi. On the contrary, it might be easier for the military to simply place him, and other members of the MB leadership, under house arrest. In such a scenario, can anyone really envisage that the MB would simply say ‘OK’? What would their response be? Would it turn violent? No-one knows for sure – but everyone does know that Egypt is now a country that is armed on a far more widespread level than it was in the past.

The irony is – everyone sees this scenario as quite plausible, if not a certainty, except for the MB. The MB leadership is convinced it can move forward and continue in the way it has done thus far. It does not seem to realise that it is indeed in the cross-hairs. Escaping from this slow train-wreck is possible – but that all depends on President Morsi.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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