The Egyptian Military's Playbook

Why The Generals Will Tread Carefully This Time

A protester watches as military helicopters fly over El-Thadiya presidential palace, July 1, 2013. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters

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

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