How Israel Accidentally Saved Egypt’s Brotherhood
Egypt has just experienced its second coup in as many years. The event was surprising in two ways. First, it will actually strengthen Egyptian democracy. Second, whether they meant to or not, the Israelis helped make it possible.
The first coup came in February 2011, when the Egyptian Army responded to popular protests by removing President Hosni Mubarak from office. Although it came in the context of the Arab Spring, and the generals claimed it was just an interim measure, this was assuredly a military coup. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, allowed legislative and presidential elections. But it kept control through the nation’s constitutional court, which oversaw the disqualification of several important presidential candidates and eventually ordered the legislature to dissolve just as voters were electing Mohamed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Mursi was elected in June — indeed, since the legislative elections in January — there has been serious tension between the elected representatives of the Brotherhood and the military. The goal of the Supreme Council, and especially of Tantawi, has been to delegitimize the politicians by claiming that they are Islamists intent on turning the country into another Iran. This old tactic, borrowed from Mubarak and other dictators in the region, has resonance in some foreign capitals, and no doubt with some Egyptian secularists who fear what an Islamic democracy in their country might look like.
Meanwhile, the goal of the Islamic democrats has been to weaken the army and use the fact that they were elected to generate public support. The only trouble with this strategy has been that the army wouldn’t budge, and that the Egyptians who went to the streets for freedom in the early Arab Spring haven’t been eager to repeat their heroic efforts.
Hence the subtlety of the latest coup. It came in the aftermath of an Aug. 5 attack by jihadis on an Egyptian military encampment in the Sinai desert, not far from the Gaza border. The militants, who probably included local tribesmen and al- Qaeda-trained outsiders, and probably got help from Palestinians inside Gaza, killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. Then they crossed into Israel, where they would presumably have attacked Kibbutz Kerem Shalom just across the border. They made it a mile in — half a mile from the kibbutz — before Israeli strikes wiped them out.
The resulting humiliation for the Egyptian military gave Mursi the chance he had been waiting for. Over the course of several days, he forced the retirement of the head of intelligence and then of Tantawi himself and the other senior- most brass. They went unwillingly, but they went.