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In 2011, it took several rounds of protests before the chanting on the Egyptian street for “bread, freedom, and social justice” morphed into “down with the regime.” This time, the demonstrators had that goal in mind all along. In some ways, this week’s events do seem like a sped-up version of the January 25 Revolution. But June 2013 is not January 2011. The calculus of the Egyptian military, for one, is much more complicated. Having intervened once and gotten burned in the process, the generals are likely to be a lot more circumspect this time around.
The Egyptian military is still licking its wounds from the year and a half in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces directed Egypt’s transition to democracy. Today, Egyptian demonstrators may be yelling irhal (leave) at President Mohammad Morsi, but the military leadership hasn’t forgotten that many of the same demonstrators were shouting yasqut hukm al-asker (down with military rule) during the SCAF’s stint in power. That is not to say that the military’s ultimatum on July 1, in which it gave Morsi 48 hours to meet the protests’ demands, is empty. But if it does intervene, expect the military to steer a different course than it did in 2011.
Even before the ultimatum, the Egyptian military had already threatened to inject itself back into politics once in the last few days. In a June 23 address that was widely scrutinized for hints of the military’s thinking, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that the military had “a moral, patriotic, and historical responsibility … to keep Egypt from sliding into a dark tunnel of conflict, internal fighting, civil war, sectarian discord and the collapse of state institutions.” At the same time, al-Sisi urged all political forces to engage in a serious national dialog in the week remaining before the June 30 opposition rallies.
Whether because the Muslim Brotherhood doubted the military’s credibility or because it thought that the opposition protests would never materialize, the call went unheeded. Instead, Islamists took to the streets in their own show of force. Morsi gave a defiant speech that invited the opposition to a national dialogue, but not before calling out prominent members of it for their refusal to participate in the government and mocking the National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition of over 30 opposition groups, for expressing far-reaching demands after failing to win a parliamentary majority.
Not surprisingly, the NSF was not pleased. Its leaders responded to the president’s speech by reiterating their refusal to talk. Another opposition movement, the Tamarod (Rebel) campaign, did its colleagues in NSF one better, warning Morsi of a “revolutionary trial” and accusing anyone considering reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood of betraying his or her fellow Egyptians. Some politicians, including those with presidential aspirations such as Hamadeen Sabahi, a leader within the NSF, shamelessly courted a military intervention. Just a day before the threatened to intervene, Sabahi asked al-Sisi to honor his June 23 pledge to uphold the will of the people and asked “where are the armed forces?”
The ominous statement that the military issued after June 30 culminated in huge rallies and some violence was similar in style to the communiques through which the SCAF announced its decisions in early 2011. The statement fed speculation that Egypt was headed for another period of military rule. Just like those earlier messages, the communique was read over state television and was filled with platitudes about the Egyptian people and the armed forces. So, too, was it short on details about the military’s own plans for moving the country forward.
A key difference, however, is that, after carrying the target of public disappointment on their backs for all of 2011 and half of 2012, the generals had come to this decision point much wearier than they did the first time around. Indeed, the senior officers had breathed a sigh of relief in 2012 when they finally shifted the burden of governance onto Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. By letting go of executive power, the military had reverted to the enviable position of being the institution whose support all other political actors courted. Even under a Muslim Brotherhood-led executive, the military still exerts significant control over national security affairs, it retains its prerogatives over budgetary decisions and internal promotions, and it continues to enjoy the tax breaks that help make its economic enterprises profitable.
To be sure, the military has had some tussles with the Muslim Brotherhood along the way, most notably when Morsi overruled a decision by the SCAF to assume legislative authority after the courts dissolved the lower house of parliament. And according to some interpretations, Morsi’s retirement of al-Sisi’s predecessor, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and his chief of staff, Sami Anan, was an effort by the Muslim Brotherhood to defang the generals. But this understanding fails to take into account the fact that Tantawi and Anan’s successors were also members of the SCAF and that the service chiefs that left with Tantawi were given a soft landing in the form of lucrative sinecures. So the relationship between Morsi and the military was cozier than the latest announcement would seem to suggest.
Even more than power, though, the generals prize domestic stability. Part reality and part myth, the officer corps has cultivated a self-aggrandizing narrative that the military is the only institution capable of protecting Egypt from enemies -- external and internal alike. Therefore, the threat of chaos may yet drive the officers to intervene in Egypt’s political crisis. In the past few months, Egypt has slid toward lawlessness and civil conflict. There have been lynchings of suspected criminals in the Delta, mob violence against religious minorities, and demonstrations and counterdemonstrations under the threat of violence. The chaos isn’t new (the previous justice minister warned of the collapse of the state back in March) but it is getting worse and Morsi has clearly lost public confidence.
Having come to the point where stepping into politics looks like it could be the lesser of two evils, the military would certainly approach any intervention carefully. First, since stability is a priority, the military would likely seek some acquiescence from the Islamists in its next move. Together, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists won nearly three quarters of parliamentary seats in the 2011-2012 election. Although the lower house of parliament has since been dissolved over a technicality in the electoral law, those results and Morsi’s own 2012 victory cannot be dismissed out of hand.
An intervention absent Islamist support would risk an Algeria-like scenario, in which the military’s overturning of an Islamist electoral victory led to a civil war that embroiled the country throughout the 1990s. To mitigate against the possibility of a violent response, the military could try to coax the Muslim Brotherhood to the bargaining table with the opposition. Failing that, it could try reach out to Islamists from outside the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Salafists, or breakaway groups, such as the Strong Egypt and Center parties.
Second, if the officer corps learned anything from leading the political transition in 2011 and 2012, it is that a go-it-alone approach pushes the public to lay all its grievances on the military's doorstop. This time, the generals could not rule by fiat with only the window dressing of a civilian government. Instead, they would need to form an actual caretaker government -- with explicitly defined authorities and representation from across Egypt’s ideological spectrum -- that could oversee affairs before new elections.
Building a real caretaker government is easier said than done. There are few consensus figures in Egyptian politics today. Abdel Moneim Abu al-Futuh, who was a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart and presidential candidate last year, has revolutionary credentials and boasts some cross-ideological appeal. But he is also one of the more vocal critics of military rule. Another option would be the Nour party. Although it sits to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood in its politics, it has tried to play an intermediary role between the Muslim Brotherhood and the NSF. But Nour would be anathema to many secular Egyptians. As for the antagonists, the Muslim Brotherhood has no interest in sharing power with the opposition, which it continues to see as a small minority trying to overthrow an elected leader. At any rate, any division of the cake is likely to lead to squabbling within the non-Islamist bloc that is, for the moment, united only by its contempt for the Islamists.
At this point, there is nothing to indicate that generals have a plan that matches their objective -- stability -- with their means -- a military intervention. An intervention would almost surely exacerbate short-term instability as the opposition presses harder and the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies try to get their own supporters into the street. But the military has already taken the first wade into this morass. It should be holding its breath as it takes the next one.