Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Egypt: Could the Military Intervene?

by Steven A. Cook
January 30, 2013

Protesters, who are against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, gather near a military tank as they take part in a march during a nighttime curfew in the city of Port Said January 28, 2013 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces handed power to President Mohammed Morsi last June it seemed that everyone in Egypt, especially the officers, breathed a huge sigh of relief.  The transition from Mubarak to Morsi had been long, difficult, and sometimes violent.  The SCAF under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his deputy, Lt. General Sami Ennan, were manifestly ill-equipped to govern Egypt on a day-to-day basis and it showed.  By the spring of 2012, the officers were counting down the days to when they could hand-off the whole problem that Egyptian politics had become to anyone who would relieve them of the burdens of government.  Of course, the military exacted its price.  Egypt’s constitution gives the senior command autonomy in defense policy, budgeting, and personnel.  In addition, the Ministry of Defense held onto its robust economic interests.

Yet, just because the officers returned to the barracks and secured a good deal for themselves in the process, never meant that the military had taken its role in the political system off the table.  This is why the Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah al Sissi’s statement on the military’s official Facebook page warning of “state collapse” was interesting, but also not all that surprising.  Well before the January 25 uprising, the officers had indicated that they had no issue with political reform and change so long as “social cohesion” was not threatened. The Facebook post was likely a warning to both protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to de-escalate this recent spasm of violence.   The warning also reveals that events over the past week have clearly raised enough concerns about social cohesion within the upper echelons of the MoD that al Sissi and his top commanders are worried and have, at the least, contemplated intervention.

On one level, the military’s return seems unlikely.  The risks of intervention are great.  If the military dumped Morsi and assumed responsibility for the country again, who would be their civilian partners?  To whom would they ultimately transfer power?  Presumably there would be a new election, but in Egypt’s polarized political environment, it is not clear who would prevail and if that person/political group would be able to establish control any better than Morsi.  Also, what if the military intervened and no one listened?  After all, Morsi declared a state of emergency in Port Said and protesters ignored it.  Average Egyptians still hold the military in high-regard, but it seems pretty clear that there is a hardcore group of demonstrators who are bent on fomenting anarchy and challenging the authority of the state. If the military intervenes and proves incapable of securing Egypt’s streets—a mission for which they are not prepared, it would be a blow to the prestige of the armed forces.  Another question no doubt weighing on Egypt’s high-command is public opinion.  The eighteen-month transition clearly tarnished the reputations of the SCAF as it was composed under Field Marshal Tantawi and important segments of elite opinion regard the military as a counter-revolutionary force.  Intervention would surely be tough politically for the officers.

On another level, despite all the factors militating against the army’s return, it is not as far-fetched as it seems to be.  If the situation deteriorates further, the military might not have a choice and it might find a warm reception.  True, the Egyptian twittersphere, revolutionaries, the Brothers, and some liberals would be enraged, but it is not clear that the general public would be so opposed.  Even important figures with excellent democratic credentials might be warm to the idea if things get much worse.  Already, Mohamed ElBaradei would like the military to guarantee a national unity government.  That is a long way from intervention and ElBaradei and others would need a clear pathway for a transition back to civilian rule in order to accept the military’s return— something al Sissi and his officers would likely be willing to give him.

After the transition from the SCAF to Morsi it is, indeed, hard to contemplate another military intervention.  Yet little more than two years ago, most analysts were confident that Hosni Mubarak’s rule was stable.  Never did anyone think that a popular uprising would bring him down.  Never say never…..

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by E. Bearinger

    Thanks for the post, It’s always interesting to have your opinion on subjects concerning the military.

    But there is one thing I keep wondering about: who is going to tame the police forces ? and how ? Apparently these guys won’t receive orders from anyone. It is not even clear if they obeyed the government when SCAF was in power. The same is true for probably most of the other branches of government, but the police forces do have weapons.

    Would it be conceivable that the army would intervene against the police at one point, like what happened in Tunisia two years ago ?

  • Posted by Tarek Ragheb

    Very solid piece. i am not certain the military has the capacity to intervene any more. When the secularists or at least the non religious element are pushed to the margins by a facade of democracy, you get this anger in the streets. If the religious minority , and make no mistake they are a minority although very vocal and active, are side lined they will resort to some awful terror tactics to include bombings and targeted assignations. So I just don’t see a quick end to this. What I do know is that this is beginning of the end of the religious current. It’s just a matter of time.

  • Posted by Nancy Edward

    A great article, covering the possible scenarios of Egypt, with the focus on the scenario of the appearance of the military back again on the Egyptian sphere.
    However, Egypt is currently loving the worst period of time in it’s history, and the argument or the question about “it is not clear who would prevail and if that person/political group would be able to establish control any better than Morsi”, maybe any new emerging power have learnt the mistakes of the current ruling system and basically will be far better in administering the country than the current ruling political party which lacks the expertise in politics and handling the country’s major challenges and issues. In other words, liberal, secular and other forces are more capable of ruling the country than the Islamic forces, since the latter injects religion in politics!

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