Why the Military Is Unlikely to Intervene in Egypt’s Messy Power Struggle
If a cabal of Egyptian generals had been planning a coup, their moment to strike should be imminent. Tuesday saw new clashes between police and tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators outside Cairo’s presidential palace as a constitutional deadlock hardened into a not-yet-violent civil war between Islamists and their rivals-and as political camps brought their supporters onto the streets ahead of a Dec. 15 referendum on a controversial draft constitution. The turmoil plays out against the backdrop of an Egyptian “fiscal cliff” that urgently demands political stability. Still, even if the current scenario includes conditions similar to those that have preceded coups in unstable societies with powerful militaries, a putsch by Egypt’s generals remains unlikely.
“Remember,” says Century Foundation analyst Michael Wahid Hanna, “Egypt’s military didn’t enjoy their time at the head of the government after [President Hosni] Mubarak was ousted.” And while President Mohamed Morsi has antagonized his political opponents with a power grab that has put his decrees beyond judicial restraint, and with an unseemly rush to ram through a constitution critics say opens the way to authoritarian Islamist rule, he has been careful to keep the military onside.
“The military’s core institutional priorities have been well catered to in the draft constitution,” notes Hanna. “Its autonomy from civilian decision-making and budgetary oversight has been largely preserved, while the national security establishment has a significant, if not yet clearly defined, role in national security decision-making. The military got a good deal in this constitutional process, and unless their intervention is required to stop Egypt plunging into civil strife, they’re going to stay on the sidelines. This isn’t their fight.”
Instead, it’s a straightforward political gang war. On the one side stands Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, who rely on their proven ability to trounce their rivals at the polls to impose their will through democratically elected institutions. They see little need to compromise with opponents they accuse of using Mubarak-era institutions to thwart the popular will. Ranged against Morsi are a range of secular, liberal and Christian groups, explicitly making common cause with remnants of the old regime in order to restrain the Islamists, who they accuse of seeking to replace the old regime with a theocratic state