Foreign Policy

Egypt's Military Back in Play

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has finally issued dates for the new parliamentary elections, due now to begin April, and end in July, over staggered rounds. Voices within the opposition have begun to splinter apart over participation; the presidential candidate that never was, Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, has already called for a boycott. Looming in the distance, however, is the key reality around what the country is going to look like in a few months time -- and if a civilian led Egypt is still a reality. Indeed, ElBaradei recently reminded the international community of the stakes in this regard, explicitly indicating that holding elections in April would risk placing the country into a state of "total chaos and instability," resulting in a military intervention. He said, "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the army] have a national duty to intervene."

ElBaradei was not advocating the intervention of the military -- he was simply pointing that it may happen as a natural consequence. Nevertheless, a certain scenario has been making the rounds around some elements within the political elite in Egypt's opposition -- some, it should be noted, rather than all or most. It goes something like this:

Morsi has made a mess of the transition to democracy, and even though he was elected, he has failed in his duty. The political turmoil and polarization are proof enough of that -- the economic disaster that is about to fall upon Egypt will simply be the logical consequence of all of that, and will ensure that the military intervenes to save the country. When the military does so, the Muslim Brotherhood might put up a little bit of a struggle, but they'll fold pretty quickly in order to assure themselves a political future in Egypt. Alternatively, they might fight a little bit, but the military will make short shrift of them, and they will then be shunted underground, ending for once and for all this abysmal experiment of Islamist rule in Egypt. The military, having understood the mistakes it made during Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's reign, will be far more suave this time around, and will set the stage for a new constitution, and a new presidential election, before it departs the scene. The international community will cluck, cluck, perhaps, but will quietly be satisfied, as they also never wanted an Islamist regime to emerge. The opposition will then provide an alternative leadership that can lead Egypt forward.

It is an interesting scenario, to say the least -- but it is not terribly realistic, let alone ethical. The military may indeed intervene, as it might under any regime that contributes to the instability of Egypt -- it did so under Mubarak, and it may do so again. However, Morsi is not Mubarak. The military intervened when it was clear the overwhelming majority of the country wanted Mubarak to go -- demonstrating in massive protests, in which millions of people over several weeks showed that they would not accept anything less than his departure. The same cannot be said for Morsi. He is certainly unpopular -- and with very good reason -- but the vast majority of Egyptians haven't shown they want him to have the same fate as Mubarak.

If the military were to intervene, moreover, no one should expect it to be a walk in the park. When Mubarak was forced to resign by the military, his own establishment, including those who had the arms, turned against him. The police force would not fight against the military, and that was that. In a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood is forced from power -- a movement, living in an existential moment, that already feels the world is out to get it -- it is hard to see the MB not reacting with force. It would eventually lose against the combined forces of the military and the police -- but it would not be pretty. It would be a betrayal of the revolution of Tahrir forever, if any "revolutionaries" wanted such a bloodbath in order to put aside their political opponents.

If the military then takes control, the assumption that this leadership would be that much different from the previous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not certain, to say the least. The former SCAF under Tantawi, regardless of the media assertions to the contrary, was incredibly popular in Egypt. Among the political elite, whether opposition or MB, it had a varied reputation -- but across the country, the military's standing was solid. It may thus believe that there are actually not many errors to correct for, and another transitional phase may not prove to be all that much better than the last one. Of course, no one knows how it will behave -- only that in general, the military will look out for it's own interests, which include the stability of Egypt, as well as the fortification of military independence and autonomy.

To assume that the opposition leadership has the ability to provide a genuine alternative that can steer the country better may turn out to be wishful thinking -- in general, political leadership in Egypt has been indescribably lacking for the masses of Egyptians. This goes just as much for the opposition, which does not enjoy as much blame as the MB for the political turmoil, as it is not in power -- but is still hardly stellar by comparison.

What is generally true is that the international community would, in all likelihood, cluck, cluck, and let things unfold as it will -- as long as Egypt remains stable. The failure of Egypt is simply not an option, for broader political, economic, and security considerations.

All of this should not come as a surprise to any political force within Egypt -- whether the opposition or the MB. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the way to avoid this outcome is not in the opposition's court. Even if it were to disavow, and actively be against any military involvement in politics, its weight is negligible in that regard -- the military will come or not come according to its own calculus, not that of the opposition. The Egyptian presidency is what makes the difference in Egypt in terms of averting the realization of this scenario. The presidency must be aware that within the opposition, the broad majority would want to avoid any further turmoil in Egypt. They no longer need political allies who are simply willing to back up the government -- the presidency need partners who are willing to serve in a genuine national salvation government that resolves the political turmoil on the one hand, and sets into motion an economic recovery immediately. As the days go on, that all becomes more and more difficult -- and the likely scenarios become less and less palatable, for everyone.