The Egyptian army: referee, kingmaker and ultimate winner

The major question facing Egypt is whether the tragic mass killings of 14 August have ended the chances for a peaceful way out.

In the unfolding story of the Egyptian revolution, which started on 25 January 2011, 14 August 2013 has witnessed the deadliest violence so far. According to official figures, which remain contested, close to 700 people were killed and several thousands injured. With the declaration of a state of emergency in which the army is authorised to ‘assist’ security forces to ‘restore’ law and order, the army has every reason to continue to act as referee, kingmaker and ultimate winner. This was the role it carved out for itself by deposing President Mohamed Morsi.

Writing in the Time Magazine cover story, Fareed Zakaria observed that ‘the most important debate in Egypt since the July 3 coup … revolves around this question: How will followers of political Islam respond to the Brotherhood’s ouster?’ While this is an important issue, a much more important one may be the possibility of full democratisation in Egypt, given the decisive role the army is playing now. In light of the tragic events of 14 August, a more immediate challenge for Egypt is ending the dangerously escalating polarisation and violence in the country.

One of the major achievements of the popular street protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was a freely and credibly contested electoral democracy for the first time in the history of the country. However, by arrogating to itself the role of architect of modern Egypt, the army assumed the role of referee in the political contestation between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the secular and liberal revolutionary forces after the MB won Egypt’s first democratic elections. Soon after the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party won the majority of seats in parliament, the army issued a declaration of ‘constitutional principles’ to circumvent the influence of MB in the drafting of Egypt’s constitution. Days before Morsi won the presidential elections and became Egypt’s president in June 2012, the army stripped the presidency of major executive powers.

Although Morsi attempted to rein in the army, taking steps such as effecting changes in its leadership, the impact of these measures was limited. The army, while keeping a low profile after the constitutional referendum in November 2012, remained powerful.

Morsi came to power through the ballot box, but his one-year rule failed to address Egypt’s various political, economic and security challenges. When the protests against him gathered momentum and mobilised millions of people onto the streets of Egypt on 30 June 2013, the army again emerged as a referee. On 1 July, it gave Morsi’s government 48 hours to respond to the demands of the people and threatened to intervene and implement its own road map if the government failed to resolve the crisis.

In so doing, the army took control of both Morsi’s fate as president of Egypt and the evolution of Egypt’s politics. Although the army portrayed itself as an impartial arbitrator, it showed no interest in resolving the standoff between the protestors and Morsi other than by siding with the protestors. In a show of its determination to depose Morsi, the army leaked a road map for transition before the end of its 48-hour deadline.

On 3 July, the army adopted a series of measures that ended Egypt’s one-year experiment with democracy. It deposed Morsi and kept him incommunicado. It declared the dissolution of the democratically elected parliament and the suspension of Egypt’s constitution, which had been adopted by popular referendum less than a year ago. While it avoided repeating the role it played following the ouster of Mubarak in 2011, when it acted as a caretaker government, it installed a new transitional head of state. In so doing, the army once again asserted the continuity of its place in Egypt as power broker and kingmaker.

Demonstrating its position as the main political force in Egypt’s still-unfolding post-Morsi political (dis)order, on 24 July the head of the army, General Abdel Fattah Al Sissi, called for a popular demonstration to give him the mandate to fight ‘violence and terror’.

14 August marks a turning point in Egyptian politics. The military has asserted itself fully. It is not clear how the resistance of the MB and the violent confrontations in Egypt will evolve. The mass killings have no doubt made a positive sum outcome near impossible, although it is not totally out of reach. The worst-case scenario is a deepening of the polarisation and confrontation in the country and Egypt’s descent into social strife and violence. The deadly crackdown on protesters on 14 August shows that such a scenario is a real and imminent possibility, if it has not already started unfolding.

If the worst-case scenario should take place, the army’s role would become even bigger. Indeed, the army would use the state of emergency – declared by a government that it controls – to continue its crackdown on its enemies and expand its role in shaping the course of the ‘authoritarian’ transition.

The military’s ouster of Morsi has closed the possibility of curbing its power and achieving Egypt’s full democratic transformation, at least in the short to medium term. The tragedy of 14 August might have ended the chances of a negotiated settlement, pushing the country further to the brink, which is a much more comfortable and familiar territory for the army than ordinary politics.

The answer to Egypt’s crisis lies in achieving a win-win political settlement rather than the current zero-sum politics. A clear lesson that emerged from Morsi’s one-year rule and the tragedy of 14 August is that no single Egyptian political force is in a position to lead the country and deal with the political, economic and security challenges it faces. The prevailing polarisation will only spell further disaster and no one is in a position to come out as the exclusive winner of the stalemate. But the government has to shoulder the burden of taking major conciliatory steps to end the polarisation. It is not clear if the military-led government is disposed to such measures without the revolutionary forces in Egypt bringing their influence to bear. As things stand currently, one thing that is certain is that Egypt’s crisis is nowhere closer to reaching an end.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

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