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Egypt’s Grim Reality – Will the Army Intervene?

A foreigner to entering Egypt earlier this week might think he had reached some sort of Middle Eastern paradise.

On Wednesday, Egyptian news sites and TV stations devoted extensive coverage to the joint press conference between Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani and his Egyptian counterpart Hesham Kandil. Al-Thani told reporters he would be giving Cairo a $3 billion present in the form of a government bond purchase, on top of $5 billion in aid Doha has given to Egypt ($4 billion in unconditioned aid and the rest as bank loans).

“A strong Egypt is in the interest of all Arab countries, including Qatar,” said Al-Thani, who serves as Doha’s prime and foreign minister. Meanwhile an IMF visit was taking place to assess whether Egypt is eligible for another $4.8 billion in loans.

Just a day earlier, a few hundred Cairo residents – Muslims and Christians – held a rally for religious coexistence. Demonstrators marched from a mosque in central Cairo to Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the suburb of Abbasiya.

There was even good news on the soccer front. Italian media reported that the formidable Inter Milan planned to acquire 21 year old Egyptian wunderkind forward Mohammed Salih.

Underneath the optimistic reports, however, is Egypt’s grim economic, political, and civil reality.

A quarter of Egyptians live in poverty. Foreign currency reserves have plummeted from $36 billion on the day Hosni Mubarak left the presidency to just $13 billion today. Officially, unemployment stands at 13 percent, but experts believe the real number is much higher. The Egyptian pound is in freefall, and in the background lurks the prospect of dollarization, which could drag the economy down further still.

Even the bailout deal itself has been specifically criticized. Bassem Youssef, who regularly makes mincemeat of Morsi on his show “The Show.” On Saturday, four days before the Thani-Kandil press conference, Youssef took a jab at Qatar as well. He used a well-known Egyptian song to portray Doha’s munificence as a transparent bid to buy the Egyptian revolution and indeed the country itself.

Meanwhile, past the coexistence rallies, Egypt is a divided country. Theft, gang activity, and Egypt’s ever-present sexual harassment problem are on the rise.

In terms of sectarianism, this week was one of the toughest and saddest the country has known in decades. On Saturday four Copts were killed in clashes in the Khosos area of Cairo. The day after, another two people were killed near the cathedral in Abbasiya.

Eight million Copts live in Egypt today, and they feel the Earth trembling under their feet. Even the faith’s preternaturally even-keeled spiritual leader Pope Tawadros II launched a stinging attack against Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, saying the president alone bears responsibility for the anti-Copt violence. Even protesters at the coexistence rally chanted calls for Morsi’s ouster.

They’re not alone: the views are shared by young people from the “April 6” and other opposition movements, and even by disappointed Islamists. The latter now look to former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. And then there are the representatives of the National Salvation Front – an amalgamation of non-Islamist parties that seeks to topple Morsi in new elections. It is led by former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, Mubarak’s former foreign minister Amr Moussa, and leftist leader Hamdeen Sabahi.

Could Egypt be headed for another military revolution?

One key figure abstained from casting criticism on Morsi and the Brothers: the Egyptian military. Ironically, it’s the army’s silence that the Brotherhood might fear most.

The Egyptian public is getting bolder in calling for the army to intervene with a military coup. Those same young people who a year ago called for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to relinquish power are now demanding Morsi’s head.

On Wednesday the Guardian released a document compiled a few months ago by a presidential committee hand-picked by Morsi. Excerpts show extensive army involvement in acts of violence and torture against protesters. In conspiracy theory-ridden Egypt, the leaks were seen as evidence the Morsi is making a play against the army as the army maneuvers for greater power.

Nonsense. Morsi’s office is worriedly watching the army’s popularity rise, but for its part the military has made clear it intend to limit its activity to the battlefield.

On Wednesday Morsi went into damage control mode, sending spokesman Ihab Fahmy to assure the press that the army and presidency are the best of friends. “We respect the army and its officers,” Fahmy said.

The army is now seen as the country’s incorruptible savior, while Morsi is the corrupt leader doing the bidding of two men: Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and Khairat al-Shater, the millionaire businessman who is the movement’s chief financier.

Eric Trager, an Egypt expert at the Washington Institute, wrote Wednesday in the Atlantic of the possibility that the army might take over Egypt once more, as it did in the infamous 1952 “Free Officers” revolt against the Western-backed monarchy.

Trager described the army’s deep integration into Egypt’s economy. He wrote about visiting a shopping complex the army had established, which included a giant supermarket selling goods at a deep discount.Trager marveled that all the workers – from the clerks to the janitors – were soldiers in Egypt’s standing army. At a building site nearby, workers in army uniforms were building a new commercial complex where food and clothes would be sold. It’s a phenomenon reminiscent of efforts by the Brotherhood for the last 84 years to ensure local communities remain dependent on their largesse.

“The absence of a common language between Morsi and the army is an open secret,” says Prof. Yoram Meital, head of Ben-Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies.

“When [Field Marshal and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi] says the army must prevent anarchy in Egypt, I understand it as an attempt to say, ‘Guys, the army doesn’t intend to function as a political opposition group in the mold of National Salvation Front,’” Meital says, “but would [act] only in the case of a complete collapse of law and order.”

“Sisi doesn’t want to be the one who launches a policy that will ultimately benefit the National Salvation Front. That’s why the current possibility a military coup is low,” he says. “Military intervention, however, is something else. But Sisi knows the street is the greatest force in Egypt today. That public has greater political awareness, so I don’t see the scenario of a 1952-style coup happening again.”

In Meital’s view, the possibility of Morsi’s regime crumbling is also low, despite the hints dropped this week by Justice Minister Ahmed Meky, a Morsi confidant, that the president “is not ruling out going to early elections if he comes to believe he has failed in his mission.”

“Morsi is identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, and if he resigns, it will be seen as an admission by the Brothers that they have failed,” Meital adds. “Even Morsi’s removal and his replacement by another Muslim Brother like Shater wouldn’t be accepted by most Egyptians.”

“Morsi, I believe, will try to focus public attention on parliamentary elections. He is asking the upper house of parliament to amend the law to allow elections to be held in October or November, and to thereby shift the discussion to the ballot box,” he predicts. “Morsi hopes the public will seek to punish the Brothers not by focusing its rage on the presidency, but by getting revenge at the polls.”

[Photo: Egyptian government / Wiki Commons]