Why the Generals Back Morsi

The Invisible Hand in Egypt's Government

Soldiers stand guard outside the Egyptian presidential palace. Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters

It seems like déjà vu all over again in Egypt. Recent clashes between supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and those who oppose his government's draft constitution are reminiscent of the violence in the last days of former President Hosni Mubarak's reign. Both then and now, the military and police have been generally absent from the scene, standing aloof from the chaos around them. To be sure, the generals have issued statements suggesting that they might step in to restore order, but they have never made clear whether they would intervene on behalf of the protesters or Morsi. Further, on December 11, they indicated their interest in brokering a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the protesters, only to rescind the offer shortly thereafter. 

Some have argued that the military's apparent neutrality is a reflection of its diminished power. The June 2012 election that brought Morsi to office, the argument goes, clipped the military's wings, forcing the soldiers back to their barracks. Specifically, Morsi's sacking of the most senior general in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last August was taken as proof. Yet Morsi's move was not solely Machiavellian. In fact, according to Egypt's deputy defense minister, General Mohamed el-Assar, Morsi coordinated his plan with the SCAF's junior members. The gambit thus revealed the beginnings of an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces.

The military's feint at nonpartisanship during the recent protests was similarly clever. With the demonstrators calling for Morsi's ouster and the president's supporters chastising the protesters for wanting to topple an elected government, observers seemed unconcerned with the military. It was almost as if they had forgotten about the SCAF's despised rule in the 17 months following Mubarak's ouster and the body's continued presence in the halls of power thereafter. To be sure, during its stint in office, the SCAF minimally delivered on its promise to return Egypt to civilian rule, but it also grew increasingly repressive and worked to preserve the character of the Mubarak-era

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