As supporters and opponents of Mohamed Morsi square off with rocks and Molotov cocktails while Morsi hunkers down in the presidential palace and ponders whether or not to rescind his decree granting him powers beyond the scope of the courts, it is difficult for me to fathom that all of a sudden the military is nowhere to be seen. The same military that formed the SCAF and ran the country for over a year is now content to remain in the barracks while Egypt once again burns in an eerie repeat of the clashes that marked the end of Hosni Mubarak’s tenure as president. It seems that after cutting a deal with Morsi that allowed him to actually assume power in return for letting the military do its own thing away from the oversight of civilian government – and it is pretty obvious to me based on the new draft constitution that this is exactly what happened – the army is no longer interested in interfering and is going to let things play out.
In one sense, this is not at all surprising. My friend Steven Cook hit the nail on the head in his book Ruling But Not Governing in which he posited that the Egyptian military is content to maintain its prerogatives and special ruling status but does not want to have to be involved in actually governing on a day to day basis, and after a brief and relatively unsuccessful foray into governing, the Egyptian military probably does not want any more part of it. It has been assured that it will be left alone, and so it probably welcomes a return to its historical role of remaining behind the scenes while Egypt’s different factions feud amongst themselves. The flip side of this is that it is an odd spectacle watching Egypt’s officers do nothing as the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom it has historically been wary, beats protestors in the streets and does everything it can to consolidate its power.
The question is how long the army can actually stay on the sidelines given that Egypt looks to be getting closer and closer to a heightened state of internal conflict. In the Washington Post, Robert Springborg contends that the military may have to intervene sooner or later and that both the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents may be looking to the army to decide Egypt’s future. While the fighting in the streets and the crisis between Morsi and Egypt’s judiciary is getting worse and does not have an obvious endgame as both sides dig in, turning to the military to resolve things would be the most damaging move that Egypt could inflict upon itself if it ever hopes to maintain long-term civilian rule. As much as an outside referee may be needed, it absolutely cannot be the Egyptian military.
Political patterns have a logic of their own and can rapidly become institutionalized once they are repeated. Look no further than the tradition of a strong Egyptian president and how the Muslim Brotherhood, a la John Kerry, was famously against it before it was for it. Or more saliently for the purposes of this discussion, take the experience of Turkey, which had its first military coup in 1960 intended to temporarily right the ship, and then went through both hard and soft military coups in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Once the army had stepped in once, it became much easier for it to happen a second time and then a third, and the rationale for doing so also became more justifiable. After all, since the army had restored civilian politics after the initial coup, a military course correction every ten years or so might not look so bad. Once military intervention in the political system was routinized, not only did it guarantee repetition, it turned into a pattern that was self-perpetuating and very difficult to break. It took jailing hundreds of officers and eviscerating the Turkish military in an undemocratic way to finally put an end to military interventions.
The Egyptian army has already stepped in once to try and steer the ship of the state on a temporary basis. The logic in doing so at the time was in many ways justifiable, and while the results were less than ideal, it was a popular move with many Egyptians who saw no good alternative. This time, however, if the army gets in the middle of the various parties and tries to intervene and sort things out, the long term results will be even more disastrous. Creating a pattern in which the military is expected to act as a referee and step in any time things get hairy will doom any hope for civilian rule or the semblance of democratic politics in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is in my view acting in an extreme and inexcusable authoritarian manner, and while it may view its recent activities as being in the service of democracy I see that as a serious stretch. The liberal opposition, while at the moment protesting the MB’s anti-democratic moves, also does not have its own history of supporting democracy, and in fact is quite content to support anti-democratic measures that further its own objectives. So you have two sides, neither of whom has any demonstrable democratic credentials of which to speak, fighting over Egypt’s political future and what happens next. It does not give one any real hope that Egypt is going to come out of this post-revolutionary period having transitioned to democracy, and I have been extremely skeptical about the chances of that outcome from the start. One thing I can say for certain though is that another military intervention is not going to do the trick. If the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents cannot figure out a mechanism for sorting this out and the army has to do it for them and arbitrate or even just choose sides, Egypt’s nascent civilian politics will be wiped out for the foreseeable future. So as bad as the scenes are coming in from Cairo, Alexandria, and other places, the fact that the military is nowhere to be seen might actually be a blessing in disguise.