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Of Arms and Imams – The Egyptian Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood’s chances for power

This is a guest post by Abu Faris

I move to Cairo just before it all kicked off in January; I quit Cairo just before it kicks off in September. However, I do live and work in Alexandria, a volatile city at the best of times. If it goes “Boom!” here, they do it large. After all, Alexandrians have been rioting, shouting a lot and gesticulating wildly since the time of, well, Alexander. They are all rather excitable. I shall be talking with a very voluble bunch of middle class Alexandrians tomorrow – who to the last one have already pressed upon me their strong opinions about almost everything under the sun. I am sure they will have something to say tomorrow.

The real creeping horror here is the following scenario that more reflective Egyptians are trying not to think about. It plays out horribly:

The mass and truly popular demonstrations of the revolutionary days of January have spent their force. The demonstrations and mass-meetings have become more partisan and selective with groups boycotting each other. The unity is dissipating, the people are not attending the meetings in the breadth and numbers once they did.

In this the armed forces have allowed the truly livid Egyptian people to vent their fury and has very cleverly gently ratcheted up the level of control over demonstrations and mass meetings through a combination of very patient, controlled, yet firm policing, together with a clever political strategy of engagement and cooperation with the political faces of the democratic revolution. This has allowed the armed forces to both control the streets without too much violence, instigate a strategy of arresting and charging revolutionary activists and generally “kettle” the entire revolution and bend it to their own wishes.

The seemingly obvious solution is that under these conditions the army definitely win the battle, dilute the revolution, invite back all the old Mubarak era cronies from where they have been hiding abroad… and basically start from where they left off. Leaving the Egyptian people demoralised and disorganised for another 5000 odd years, ruled over by yet another succession of the same old crooks, thugs and frauds.

But it actually gets worse.

The Egyptian armed forces have been a critical political player in Egypt since before the fall of King Faruq. It is a common misconception to date the birth of the political involvement of soldiers in Egyptian politics to the time of Nasser and his revolution. It rather makes better sense to suggest the reason why the Young Officers were so politically adroit in the first place was because Egyptian officers were old hands at playing political games. They may have proved less than first class on the battlefield, but the collective political mind of the Egyptian military officer caste is both Machiavellian and quite successful in achieving its political ends. It was the loss of support amongst the military officers, as a political constituency that could back up its demands with main force, that did for Faruq after all.

So, why don’t the army just do a collective Nasser and replace the old regime with what is, more or less, the same old faces doing the same old scams with the same old police arresting the same old faces?

Simply put, because they don’t want to. It is not in their interests to do so. If they tried so, the response from the people would be overwhelming and catastrophic – because the initial “revolutionary days”, their inclusiveness, their liberty, their hope is nearly all spent. But not for a moment think that the Egyptian people have not got a taste for these things. They have: if the army overplays its hand it risks the reawakened wrath of a very recently risen people.

The Egyptian people are in no mood to be fucked with, in a nutshell. There is no guarantee that the army might not split, refuse orders, or otherwise mutiny if orders came down to its mostly conscript soldiery that they were to be expected to wage counter-revolutionary war on their own families and friends in the slums of Cairo, Suez, or Alexandria. Tantawi and his staff officers would be making for the border.

To seize power, citing some riots in Egypt, would be suicidal for the political ambitions of a general staff who were – after all all promoted during Mubarak’s time – indeed, the high command would rather not anyone mentioned that. They are careful not to provoke Egyptians who generally think Mubarak was an utterly contemptible old man, with a horrid wife and thugs for sons and surrounded by crooks, sycophants and other thugs, chief amongst this shower being the High Command of the Egyptian armed forces.

So, the army bosses just are not going to go there.

Quo Vadis, Tantawi?

Understanding the fact that the Egyptian army are old political hands, does not explain everything. They are also quick learners, who have spent decades passing through every staff college in NATO and assorted other places. They highly value intelligence and are very adroit in their domestic counter-intelligence. Hardly suprising given Egypt’s recent life as a quite sophisticated monitoring operation against its own people, a job which involved exactly the same people as are doing it right now in fact. For the spooks, the revolution has meant a momentary lapse in job security, that has now passed.

They are basically sharp, quite well-presented and diciplined, heads up sort of soldiers with a very close eye on what is going on around them politically and an ability to nicely judge when to use main force and coercion and when to garner consent and cooperate with other political players. They are not to be toyed with; but they also know when to get off the bus.

What the Egyptian armed forces would like to happen is the following: They would like to stop being *directly* involved in the day-to-day running of the state. It’s messy, people blame you, you have to resign and retire on a pension at the mercy of politicians. But the Egyptian army does not want to stop being a political force. It is good at it and it likes it. The Egyptian army wants to be a partner in the running of the Egyptian state; but also one with a suitable political party partner who can take all the political flack when the wheels inevitably fall off things. They know the Egyptian people (who are already suspicious of the Mubarak-era generals) will not put up for long with a blatant army puppeteer operating some party puppet. That was Nasser’s game, Egyptians are way past that trick.

That leaves the army with the option of finding a political partner from amongst the swirling masses of political groups, fronts, locals, parties and assorted publication-based caucuses that now occupy stage front in Egyptian post-revolutionary politics.

I have attended a meeting of a group that turned out to be one media studies student, some bloke who – like me – wandered in off the street and some very attractive post-grads from the American University. It was fun; but one can hardly imagine Tantawi suggesting to his fellow generals, “O brothers, these are the people we have been praying for!”

No, what the army want is a political player of already considerable influence, preferably one popular in town and country across Egypt and amongst the poor and the affluent, one with existing networks across towns, regions and the state, one which is effectively self-financing and preferably wealthy who will cost the army nothing.

Sounds ominous? Oh, it is just beginning!

Many other political parties are old-style Sadat/Mubarak era creations – part of the steam-releasing allowed by the state after serious social and political unrest and rebellions in the ’70s. They are small, generally inert politically, passive and generally staffed by people who did quite nicely, thank you very much, under the old political dispensation of Mubarak. hese groups have seen a marked drop in popular support – not, frankly, that they had much in the first place being basically window-dressing for the kleptomaniacs that used to run Egypt.

Clearly these sorts of political groups, who lack public support and indeed who the public discount are not useful political partners for the army.

The new, revolutionary political forces are, organisationally, quite an umbrella of disparate players. Basically, the activists are drawn from the media (especially new media) and the impoverished intellectual caste in Egyptian society. With a very broad brush, it can seem tousled lads and their stunning sisters who went to university but are now unemployed, unmarried and still living with their mothers, giving voice to their mates from the same neighbourhood who never even went to school and are also without work, spouse or home. The revolutionaries are all about discussion, blogs, independent films, but also all about grinding poverty, frustrated ambition and a real anger at their seeming lack of worth. The activists articulate this – and have done so in glorious ways. They have also walked the walk, been on the barricades when the bullets really were singing in the air. They are proud of what they and their brothers and sisters from the tire-fitters, the cotton mills, the bread queue, the quiet shaming of neighbours as they enter the mosque for a hand-out (and to think, his son went to university). The shame, the shame they endured in the face of Mubarak’s turned-face shamelessness. Khalas. Enough. They are proud of all this they have done.

Despite their enthusiasm, they are fatally flawed by their newness, their inexperience in politics (especially against grand masters like the Egyptian army), their lack of state-wide (even city-wide) organisation. Further more, these are the agitators who might easily rile-up the urban and even rural masses against the army if the latter misplays its hand. The army does not need or want to converse with these folk more than it has to. Actually, it wants to round them up, contain them and “stop all that bloody student nonsense”. These are soldiers and they have that familiar soldierly impatience with the antics of the “impractical” and “idealist” youth of Egypt. More practically, the army have no need for full-scale chaos in Egypt. It needs things under control. Its control – at least in part.

The final constituency is the religious constituency. This is overwhelmingly a Islamic constituency consisting of Islamists and the religious conservative Salafi preachers and their followers. There is even a Coptic consituency; but it is almost entirely a thing of the Coptic diaspora, especially in the USA and Australia. Copts for theological as well as blindingly obvious good practical reasons tend to keep out of religion-based politics in Egypt itself. This is not to say that Copts did not figure in the revolution – they did and in large numbers; but they did not articulate matters very frequently as a community itself. When Copts did come out about community matters it was in response to some act of terrorism against Coptic people and in particular, their Church.

The Islamists are split into the giant Muslim Brotherhood – and a number of splinters from the same, as well as some “Islamic” forces allowed in as window dressing from the time of Sadat on. The Labour Party of Egypt is an Islamist party, for example.

Differences are detectable in the degree to which these Islamists play the pan-Arabist card. Some do more than others. All will talk of “Arab brothers”, but some value the idea of pan-Islamism more than the regionalism of pan-Arabism (which might, horror of horrors, mean including Christians and Jews).

All this aside, the Islamists are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been around and steadily growing in political experience, influence, outreach, effectiveness in organisation and self-discipline for the better part of a century in Egypt. They are widely popular – especially amongst the urban and rural poor.

The rural poor, in particular, regard the Muslim Brotherhood as the only effective political force to assert the typically conservative rural social and moral values and to stablise the country and return order to the markets the Egyptian peasantry relies upon for its income.

In the cities, especially Cairo, the rural poor pour in (a common-enough feature of developing states) and the already established poor rely heavily upon the Muslim Brotherhood’s network of businesses for employment and subsidised shopping, the Muslim Brotherhood’s medical professionals, establishments and organisations and even upon the Brothers’ teachers, lawyers and sundry other professionals fulfilling their religious duty of charity in voluntary work.

The message the Muslim Brotherhood preach appeals to these poor people. Often just arrived out of a very conservative and religion-based countryside, unable to see any political group as useful, effective or not tainted by the corruption of involvement in the old regime, the Egyptian poor are very receptive to the MB’s message of its own lack of corruption, proven track-record in seemingly selfless support for the poor, and its grandstanding about God and His will on earth.

MB are, accordingly, popular, influential, well-organised, wealthy and very politically experienced. In fact, qualitatively more so than anyone else apart from the armed forces themselves. Indeed, MB have the magic ingredient the army itself knows it lacks: popular support.

Why would the Egyptian armed forces who have, previously, been acknowledged as uninterested, if not sometimes down-right hostile, to God-botherers, especially MB, now want to play patsy with MB and set them up as the political player over to which the armed forces hand day-to-day political power?
Well, actually, it is a bit of a myth that the army is made up of rabid secularists. It is not. In fact, those sort of officers were long ago purged from the ranks by Sadat, as he established his power and purged the revolutionary Nasserists in the early ’70s period of “corrective revolution”.

The armed forces reflect the mores of the society from which it is drawn. And the Egyptian armed forces are no exception. Most Egyptians are quite conservative in their views (after all it took Egyptians something like 4500 years to get off their arses and overthrow Pharaoh) and in a sort of feedback circuit between traditional religiosity and the propaganda of Islamists have becoming noticeably more self-conscious of their religious identity over the last thirty years or so. The same goes for the armed forces.

After all its was serving officers in the Egyptian armed forces who did for Sadat, serving officers who also belonged to a jihadi Islamist faction. Tantawi (present head honcho in the Egyptian military junta), lest we forget, established and maintained close links with exactly these forces, when he served as military attache to the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan at the height of the Soviet-Afghan War. His main task there being to arrange the trans-shipment of jihadi unwanted in Egypt to the War in Afghanistan in return for a full pardon back in Egypt or (preferably) death somewhere near Kabul. Tantawi knows all about Islamists and thinks he can play them and control them.

Of course, in their turn, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood think they can outflank and play Tantawi and the men from the armed forces. But they both would seem to need each other. The danger, then, is that they get into bed with each other, roll-up the revolution and then start to fight over the division of spoils. Unable to give in, but also unable to contemplate its own rule, the only course of action open to the Egyptian military would be to concede politically to the Muslim Brotherhood (threatening always the bringing down of utter chaos upon Egypt and the extinction of the military as it presently stands in Egyptian politics). This concession would include, of course, recognition by the Muslim Brotherhood that the Egyptian army was a player in the game and not attempt to absorb it. Of course MB will make the right noises and then try exactly that. The grounds are there to be concerned that they might well succeed.

The Sudanese example will add to the general lack of a good night’s sleep about these matters. In Sudan, the Nasser clone, Nimeri, in order to dish the power of the Left nationalists and communists in his state (who he had initially relied upon to hoist him into power) and the traditional threat posed by the Sufi political/religious parties, had bought in the Muslim Brothers to run things for him, whilst he concentrated on important things (like fleecing the population and having shiny tanks and planes). The foundations were laid for the eventual take over of a military-Islamist alliance in the form of the present al-Bashir dictatorship in (North) Sudan. Things were different there than now in Egypt; but, nonetheless, this is not an untrod path Egyptian politics may be in danger of wandering down.

The very real and present danger is that the military will stitch up a deal with MB.