Prof. Hillel FrischThe author is Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. Hillel.firstname.lastname@example.org. Cambridge University Press has just published his book Israel's Security and its Arab Citizens.
Those calling for the Egyptian army to intervene, or believe that it will do so to avert growing unrest, range from former Egyptian justice officials and minor Egyptian politicians to journalists both within and outside Egypt. However, such hopes or expectations are probably misguided. The probability that the Egyptian army will be willing to retake the reins of power – or is even capable of doing so, after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi unceremoniously sent its leaders back to their barracks in August 2012 – is highly unlikely, if not impossible.
Taking over the reins of power means, above all, removing Egypt’s first elected president, as well as confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most disciplined and organized political force in the country. Such a move would inevitably spur massive urban demonstrations and, further down the line, wide-scale urban guerrilla warfare.
This is where the lessons gleaned from the American experience in Iraq and the two-year standoff between Bashar Assad’s Alawite-led army and the Free Syrian Army come into effect. Both experiences demonstrated that even well-trained, well-equipped, and motivated armies cannot control dense urban areas. The Americans and their Iraqi allies never totally subdued the Sunni guerrilla movements, and Assad’s Alawites have proven to be even less successful in their confrontation with Syrian rebels. These forces operated in urban areas ranging between 2.5-3.5 million people, while the Egyptian army has a megalopolis of 12 million inhabitants to contain. At best the Egyptian army would face a long war of attrition. Unlike the US force manned by motivated volunteers and a Syrian army composed mostly of loyal Alawites who fear the fall of an Alawite regime, the Egyptian higher command can only be worried about the loyalty of its rank and file in backing them in such a move.
For starters, the Egyptian army has never been indoctrinated to defend the home front. Under former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak it was the Central Security Forces (CSF), Egypt’s gendarmerie, which was allotted the task. These leaders balked at using the armed forces against the jihadist threat that plagued Egypt in the 1980s and mid-1990s partially because of the successful penetration of Islamists into army ranks. The leader of the team that assassinated Sadat was a lieutenant-colonel.
The problem is hardly a matter of a small number of infiltrators. At least half of the army recruits, it must be assumed, are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, who comprise 30 percent of the Egyptian electorate. The Egyptian army hardly recruits Copts or the Sunni Egyptian upper class that equals roughly 20 percent of the population. The implications of such a recruitment pattern are that the secular and liberals are severely underrepresented in the army and the Islamists overrepresented. It is only a small section of the former group that would support the army’s intervention in the political crisis.
At least half of the army recruits, it must be assumed, are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both the nature of indoctrination and the army’s composition explain why the army, neither during Mubarak’s ouster or ever since, has not been willing to confront demonstrators, and why the scene of junior officers and soldiers joining protesters became so common.
A most recent example was the city of Port Said, where protesters have been involved in widespread violence protesting the harsh sentences meted out to supporters of the local football team for their role in the killing of 72 Cairo football fans during a match last year, and which has since taken a political turn against the Muslim Brotherhood government. As headlines from the world’s newspapers informed their readers that the army intervened to quell unrest, the photos showed troops joining forces with demonstrators against the CSF. Since Mubarak’s ouster, only very small units within the army, the military police, or its naval counterpart have confronted demonstrators. In those cases, officials were protecting public buildings and had wide-scale public backing to do so.
An additional reason why the military has not intervened in the political crisis is the carrot that Morsi’s new constitution offered the military – budgetary autonomy –and a recent hefty salary rise. One can therefore hardly expect the military to intervene politically and even less to act effectively once it intervenes.
Finally, the army realizes that the United States is strongly opposed to military intervention almost anywhere, and especially so against the Morsi government it presently backs. In toppling the Morsi government the army would be jeopardizing United States aid amounting to over one-fifth of the Egyptian military’s budget ($1.3 billion out of a total $5.85 billion), a considerable transfer of technology, and spare parts and replacements its American-equipped forces inevitably need.
Resolution of Egypt’s political problems rests solely on Egypt’s politicians and citizens. Morsi is counting on his ability to complete his constitutional takeover of power with the running of parliamentary elections in April. The liberal and secular opposition is banking on continued instability and economic hardship to tarnish the image and popularity of the Morsi government and force it into making a grand bargain with them.
The whole situation is fraught with danger and worries that the bargaining process will get out of hand and degenerate into civil war. At least one scenario is unlikely: the return of the army to the corridors of political power.
A BESA Center Perspectives Paper, published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family