Egypt on the Brink: The Military’s Dilemma

RSIS presents the following commentary Egypt on the Brink: The Military’s Dilemma
by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this
link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at  

No. 127/2013 dated 11 July 2013

Egypt on the Brink:
The Military’s Dilemma
By James M. Dorsey


Egypt’s deep state has reasserted itself with the removal of President Mohammed
Morsi from office. Questions of legitimacy are likely to plague attempts to return
stability to Egypt with some form of military-guided democracy.


EVENTS IN Cairo presage a return to the situation under ousted President Hosni
Mubarak that prompted millions of Egyptians to camp out on Cairo's Tahrir Square
two years ago  until the military forced him to step down after 30 years in office.
However little in the drama currently unfolding harks back to the demands put
forward by the protesters in 2011: an end to the police state, greater political
freedom, respect for human rights, an end to corruption, and justice and dignity.

Egypt was seemingly united when Mubarak was ousted and the mass
demonstrations were singularly directed at an autocratic president who hailed from
the military. This time round, the Muslim Brotherhood’s mass protests against the
removal of Mubarak’s successor, President Mohamed Morsi, complicates things
for the military that sees itself as the guarantor of the state. The military has in
recent days demonstrated that it has learnt lessons from its bungling of Egypt’s
transition from autocracy to democracy in the 17 months that it ruled the country
following Mubarak’s departure.

Return of the deep state
This time the generals are seeking to pull the strings from behind a military-appointed
interim president, Adly Mahmoud Mansour, rather than taking the reins themselves.
That effort is however already faltering with the rejection of Mansour’s candidate for
interim prime minister, the liberal opposition leader Mohammed el Baradei, by the
Salafist Nour Party, which initially supported the military in its putsch against Morsi’s
presidency. Whatever ruling group  emerges from the current crisis will govern a
deeply divided country in which one substantial segment – comprising the millions of
supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood - believes that the disruption of the democratic
process was designed to exclude its  participation.

That perception as well as the reaffirmation of the role of what Egyptians call the deep
state - the military, the security forces, the judiciary and parts of the media – is likely
to make a smooth consensual return to a democratic process difficult at best. It is
reinforced by the military’s return to Mubarak-era repression with the arrest of
hundreds of Muslim Brothers, the closing down of Islamist media and possible charges
being levied against Morsi.

This week’s death of 51 Muslim Brothers, demonstrating in front of the Republican
Guards headquarters where Morsi is allegedly being held, creates a situation similar to
the crisis last year after 74 soccer fans died in a politically-loaded brawl in the Suez Canal
city of Port Said. In contrast to the current crisis, Egyptians then rallied in support of the
militant soccer fans. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood’s call for an uprising against the
military promises to escalate violence and a crackdown on the group.

The military so far has shied away from symbolising the reinstatement of Mubarak-era
practices by declaring martial law. The Brotherhood may however leave it with little
choice. It sees the peaceful protests against the military intervention as a provocation of
violence against the Muslim Brotherhood - as a way to garner international sympathy and
convince Egyptians that their country is returning to autocracy rather than moving towards
democratic transition.

Succeeding in forcing the military to openly take control is unlikely to make the
Brotherhood’s opponents more sympathetic to its cause. But it may convince parts of the
fragile anti-Morsi coalition, united on little else than wanting the Brotherhood out of office,
that by relying on the military, they simply jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Whatever way it takes, the military is likely to see its image tarnished - much like it did
after ruling the country during the transition from Mubarak to Morsi. The military has
already suffered two setbacks in recent days: the thwarting of El Baradei’s
appointment and the escalation caused by the deaths of the Muslim Brotherhood

Getting legitimacy right

At the heart of Egypt’s crisis is a mis-interpretation of what constitutes democratic
legitimacy by both Morsi and his opponents as well as a military that is determined,
whatever the cost, to protect its perks and privileges. Morsi failed to recognise that
legitimacy is defined not only by electoral victory but also by recognition of that
legitimacy by those who voted against him. The mass protests on Tahrir Square against
him demonstrated that Morsi had lost that recognition. By the same token, legitimacy is
hardly restored by military intervention and the suppression of a political grouping that
enjoys the support of up to 25 percent of the population.

The issue of legitimacy is likely to plague Egypt for some time to come. Even if the
military and Mansour were able to steer Egypt towards speedy free and fair elections in
which the Muslim Brotherhood is allowed - and agrees - to participate and a constitution
that is more universally accepted than the one Morsi unilaterally adopted, the government
that emerges from that poll will be perceived as one constrained  by the military’s political

Restoring legitimacy and stability in Egypt will ultimately depend on Egyptians insisting
that their differences are managed through dialogue rather than intervention, an
abandonment of majoritarian concepts of democracy in favour of pluralism and
inclusiveness, and a democratically-elected government that is capable of imposing its
will on the military and the other components of Egypt’s omnipresent deep state.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of 
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, 
co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the 

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