Why the Military Is Unlikely to Intervene in Egypt’s Messy Power Struggle

The generals never enjoyed their time at the top of the post-Mubarak era. And looking at the political chaos in Egypt, who can blame them?

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Protesters run away from tear gas as they try to remove barriers from outside the Egyptian presidential palace's main gate during a demonstration in Cairo on Dec. 4, 2012.

If a cabal of Egyptian generals had been planning a coup, their moment to strike should be imminent. Tuesday saw new clashes between police and tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators outside Cairo’s presidential palace as a constitutional deadlock hardened into a not-yet-violent civil war between Islamists and their rivals — and as political camps brought their supporters onto the streets ahead of a Dec. 15 referendum on a controversial draft constitution. The turmoil plays out against the backdrop of an Egyptian “fiscal cliff” that urgently demands political stability. Still, even if the current scenario includes conditions similar to those that have preceded coups in unstable societies with powerful militaries, a putsch by Egypt’s generals remains unlikely.

“Remember,” says Century Foundation analyst Michael Wahid Hanna, “Egypt’s military didn’t enjoy their time at the head of the government after [President Hosni] Mubarak was ousted.” And while President Mohamed Morsi has antagonized his political opponents with a power grab that has put his decrees beyond judicial restraint, and with an unseemly rush to ram through a constitution critics say opens the way to authoritarian Islamist rule, he has been careful to keep the military onside.

“The military’s core institutional priorities have been well catered to in the draft constitution,” notes Hanna. “Its autonomy from civilian decisionmaking and budgetary oversight has been largely preserved, while the national security establishment has a significant, if not yet clearly defined, role in national-security decisionmaking. The military got a good deal in this constitutional process, and unless their intervention is required to stop Egypt plunging into civil strife, they’re going to stay on the sidelines. This isn’t their fight.”

(MORE: Egypt’s Constitutional Endgame: Where Confusion Is the Rule)

Instead, it’s a straightforward political gang war. On the one side stands Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, who rely on their proven ability to trounce their rivals at the polls to impose their will through democratically elected institutions. They see little need to compromise with opponents they accuse of using Mubarak-era institutions to thwart the popular will. Against Morsi are a range of secular, liberal and Christian groups, explicitly making common cause with remnants of the old regime in order to restrain the Islamists, whom they accuse of seeking to replace the old regime with a theocratic state.

The standoff escalated into a full-blown crisis two weeks ago when Morsi declared that he was assuming what he claims will be temporary autocratic powers, putting his own edicts beyond the reach of the courts in order to prevent judges from continually frustrating the popular will expressed through elected institutions. The judges had previously summarily dissolved Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament on a technicality, and with it the first Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. And Morsi had reason to suspect that they were planning to nix the latest constitutional process and subordinate the elected government to the institutions of Mubarak-era autocracy.

“Morsi had ample justification for frustration,” said the Brussels-based mediation organization, the International Crisis Group (ICG). “A highly politicized judiciary has been doing all in its power to hinder the new leadership’s efforts and obstruct the expression of popular will, while the non-Islamist opposition has not shown itself the least bit constructive or conciliatory. But the President has offered the wrong answer to a real problem. He used a chainsaw where a scalpel was needed.”

And as a result, the President simply affirmed suspicions in the minds of his opponents that he harbored dictatorial intentions. As a result, many of them have joined forces under an umbrella National Salvation Front (NSF) and launched a campaign of protest.

For those taking a hawkish view on the Brotherhood, Morsi’s move simply removed the mask of moderation to reveal a hard-line Islamist ideologue determined to harness the Brotherhood’s electoral strength to ensure untrammeled authority. That view appears to be shared by the leadership of the NSF. Writing in the Financial Times on Tuesday, NSF coordinator and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei essentially endorsed last year’s dissolution of the elected legislature by judges, claiming that the election result that had marginalized many of the forces he represents had been “a landslide victory for the Islamists, far beyond their real power base” and had created a “nonrepresentative parliament.”

(PHOTOS: Egypt: Thousands Protest President Morsi’s Decree)

The idea that the parliament was unrepresentative because the liberals lost the election would stick in the craw of the Brotherhood (even more so, the new front’s embrace of figures from the old regime in the name of saving the revolution). “Ironically,” ElBaradei wrote, “the revolutionaries who got rid of Mr. Mubarak are now supported by members of his old party, united in opposition to the vague ‘Islamic Project’ that Mr. Morsi and his supporters want to make of our country.”

The NSF insists that Morsi rescind the decree awarding himself additional powers, cancel the Dec. 15 constitutional referendum and negotiate with the opposition. Refusing to heed these demands, ElBaradei warns, could produce “an eruption into violence and chaos that will destroy the fabric of Egyptian society.”

But other observers are more inclined to spread the blame for the crisis: “The Brotherhood’s intentions are less questionable than those of their rivals,” wrote George Washington University professor Nathan Brown. “But its actions are more dangerous … Even if he was provoked — or if his move was pre-emptive — Morsi’s Nov. 22 edicts eliminated any possibility that Egyptian politics would again become consensual in the near term.”

Morsi made his power grab, said Brown, at a moment when “he claimed that the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court was poised not simply to dissolve the Constituent Assembly but also overturn the President’s earlier decree removing the military from its stranglehold over the country’s political system — effectively recalling the generals to power and forcing a coup.”

That may, however, be overstating both the judges’ intentions and the military’s inclinations, and Morsi’s response has cast grave doubts over the possibility of establishing consensus and a broad-based legitimacy for the constitution likely to be adopted on Dec. 15. “The referendum won’t end the crisis,” says Hanna. “It will institutionalize the crisis.”

(MORE: An Interview with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi: ‘We’re Learning How to Be Free’)

Still, the Brotherhood believes it has the numbers to prevail in the street and at the ballot box, and also that a majority of Egyptians are not willing to see the country plunged into chaos by the opposition relaunching a protest campaign.

And despite ElBaradei’s stark warning of turmoil ahead, the Islamists may like their odds: “Morsi’s decision arguably enjoys broad support from a citizenry yearning for stability,” said the ICG. “Opposition calls to rally in Tahrir Square belong more to the realm of nostalgia than to that of effective politics: the revolutionary zeal of 2011 has long exhausted itself, and any violence likely would rally a majority to the President’s side. Without meaningful grassroots popular backing, the non-Islamist opposition typically has resorted to obstructionist politics rather than formulate a positive agenda. Its demand for a complete rescinding of the declaration is unrealistic, as Morsi has staked much of his political capital on this move.”

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Marina Ottaway sees no positive outcome on the horizon. Morsi’s decree putting his decisions beyond the reach of the courts was “a logical development in a battle for power that pits the authority of the courts against that of the ballot box,” she wrote. “Islamists won elections, and the courts annulled them. Now Islamists are annulling the power of the courts. There are no good and bad guys in this battle, only politics and expediency on both sides. And Egypt will be dragged toward renewed authoritarianism no matter who prevails.”

Meanwhile, winter is coming, literally and metaphorically. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, but is on the verge of bankruptcy. Morsi’s government is currently negotiating terms for a $4.8 billion IMF loan, the prospect of which may be imperiled by a new season of turmoil on the streets. Avoiding that peril will require Egypt’s post-Mubarak political class to develop an aptitude for the art of compromise dangerously lacking in the zero-sum politics of post-Mubarak Cairo.

MORE: Morsi’s Moment