The latest political crisis in Egypt revolves around seven Egyptian soldiers who were allegedly kidnapped by Jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula last Thursday. Their kidnappers are demanding a Sinai-based militant detained for almost two years be released from prison. In an epic show of Islamist solidarity, President Mohamed Morsi said that he is concerned for the safety of the kidnapped soldiers and their kidnappers equally. Emad Abdel Ghafour, the president’s Salafi aide, said that while he doesn’t agree with the actions of the kidnappers, he certainly understands their motivation. Let that sink in for a minute.
In order to show that he is not doing anything about resolving the crisis, Morsi called for a national dialogue session with Egypt’s political parties to discuss the kidnapped soldiers’ crisis. The natural question is: Why? Did the political parties kidnap them? When terrorists kidnap your soldiers, as the Commander in Chief, you either fight them or negotiate; you don’t call for a national dialogue session. If anything, the only “national dialogue” Morsi should call for is with his minister of defence, minister of interior and national security team. That’s it.
To complete the fiasco, the Armed Forces flooded the media and newspapers with stories detailing how the army is preparing to free the kidnapped soldiers and how it is sending armoured vehicles and tanks to Sinai, in a similar show to the one they pulled when 16 of our army soldiers were killed in Sinai last august. The result of last year’s raid was lots of missiles fired in the desert, without anyone killed or arrested for the murder of our soldiers. It should be noted that our minister of defence was the chief of military intelligence at the time (that’s the person responsible for preventing such an attack and finding out who was behind it), and that this is the event that gave Morsi the political capital to remove former defence minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, which led to his ascension to power.
And then came the video of the kidnapped soldiers, where they pleaded for their release to Morsi and Al-Sisi because “they can no longer take the torture”, but signalling out Al-Sisi, for “not moving to release his men”, as the person most responsible for their continued capture. The army defenders immediately went on the offensive, claiming that this video is a political plot by the Islamists to remove Al-Sisi. Their evidence: Only one of those soldiers is actually an army soldier, a Border Patrol corporal, while the other six are Central Security Forces (CSF), thus belonging to the minister of interior, whose name was not mentioned as a party in the video, and who is very much in the pocket of the Muslim Brotherhood. Advocates of this theory firmly believe that Morsi and Al-Sisi do not get along, a belief that is not supported by any evidence, while there are very good reasons and precedents for the contrary to be true. The CSF soldiers are originally army recruits brought in by the compulsory draft and assigned to the police. They wouldn’t be in the CSF if it wasn’t for the military draft, and that makes them the military’s moral responsibility. Even if that isn’t the case, the one Border Patrol corporal is definitely the military’s responsibility.
It makes much more sense that this is simply an attempt to reign in Al-Sisi reputation wise, and weirdly enough I have no problem with that. Here is why: Al-Sisi has spent the past few months cosying up to movie stars, media personalities, and the likes. He invited them to the least lavish non-state-sponsored Sinai Day celebration in the history of Egypt (a precedent), where he, as the minister of defence, gave a speech (another precedent) that assured the artists and the Copts, as some of them cried over the Egypt they once knew. A couple of weeks later he hosted an inspection for a tank division, where he invited another group of media personalities and movie superstar Adel Imam, while nobody asked why he is doing this.
The truth is Al-Sisi needs them and their desperate and unrealistic hope that the army will overthrow Morsi. In doing so it will restore the reputation of the army, which was heavily tarnished during and after the revolution. Al-Sisi fully understands that true popularity lies in the hands of this segment of the population (and not the Islamists sheikh’s), and they will hold on to that false hope, and in turn, will continue praising him and defending the military against any criticism out of their fear of the Islamists. In short, those people provide him leverage and support, while costing him nothing, and perpetuating the illusion that they need the military to be on their side, while the reality is that the opposite is true. The Armed Forces is on the weak end of this equation and needs the unwavering non-Islamists support to maintain its interests and its interests alone. It’s the greatest mind trick of all time, convincing those people that the military will be their saviour, while it’s obviously having a hard time saving its own soldiers.
But I will bite: Let’s assume that there is a conspiracy against Al-Sisi as part of some nefarious Islamist plot to remove him, and right now they have him at checkmate. What’s the logical move for him to do? Naturally it would be to give the order to attack the kidnappers and rescue the soldiers immediately, at any cost. Morsi will not be able to stop him or remove him for doing so, especially with the country floating in anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment and Tamarod campaign flyers. Even if the kidnapped soldiers end up dying in such a rescue mission, he will be seen as a “strong man of action” who puts national security first and the political calculations of the executive second. He would become insanely popular, and too strong to ever be removed. It would even heighten public support for “cleaning up Sinai” from Jihadist camps, even if it comes at a high cost of human lives, thus eliminating this thorn in the side of the military forever. If he truly was in danger, this is what he would do, and thus proving once and for all that he is not Morsi’s man, but rather Egypt’s man and worthy of that support he so seemingly craves from us.
Armies are measured by their ability to fight, not by how many pasta factories they own. If Al-Sisi needs the support of non-Islamists, he needs to earn it, which he so far has not done. If not, then we don’t have an army, but rather another armed group in Egypt that gets funded by us, and compulsorily drafts our youth only to stand idly by when they get kidnapped or killed.
Either way, the conclusion is the same: we need a new army.
Mahmoud Salem is a political activist, writer, and social media consultant.