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Egypt’s Military Makes its Move; How will the Muslim Brotherhood Respond?

Following last weekend’s disputed presidential election results, when the ruling military rejected early victory claims by the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to rally against the military. Last night, the protests hit its largest turnout, setting up an unprecedented showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that has been decades in the making.

The dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and military goes back over a half century to the early 1950s when the Free Officers Movement led by Gamal Nasser overthrew pro-British King Farouk and established the modern Egyptian state.  Despite eliciting the Muslim Brotherhood’s support during the revolution, Nasser feared the Brotherhood’s power and influence and shortly after taking power he began to heavily persecute them (including the famous execution of the influential radical Islamist-thinker Sayyid Qutb). The periods of brutal repression by Nasser and his successors Sadat (who was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood) and Mubarak, forced the Brotherhood underground and continue to build their Islamic network of schools and charities until the right opportunity arises again. Their strategy has been relatively effective; today they represent one of the most formidable forces in Egypt and a direct challenge to the military’s power.

But the military has also been busy. As this very useful BBC article shows, the military has built an immense industrial and economic empire. Factories, housing developments, banks, tourist resorts: this doesn’t just give the military money and hold the institution together (cushy, well paid jobs on retirement). It gives the military political and social clout. In a desperately poor country like Egypt, having jobs and business contracts to offer can bring you a whole network of supporters, including the families and relatives of the people you hire. Moreover, the military has colonized the civilian government; as the BBC article points out, most provincial governors and many heads of both private and public companies are run by retired military personnel.

(This pattern isn’t unique to Egypt. In a number of developing countries the military, as the most cohesive force in the state and in many countries the best source of trained high level personnel, ends up by deeply penetrating and dominating the economic as well as the political life of the country. Most recently, this is what the Cuban military has been up to for the last fifteen years or so.)

Anyway, for sixty years now in Egypt, the two forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military have dominated the scene, and each side has been steadily building up its economic, social and ideological support. So far, the military has won every confrontation, and the consequences of confrontation for the Islamists have been devastating. People get tortured in Egyptian jails. On the other hand, factions within the Brotherhood who are ready to work within the military dominated system don’t do that badly. They have been able to build up institutional and patronage networks and the role of Islam in public life and law has gradually grown.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been pushing for more power in the chaos that followed the overthrow of Mubarak. The military now evidently feels that the time is right to reassert its basic control over Egypt. The Islamists seem split; some are ready to follow the traditional path of accommodation and patience; others feel that the time for direct action has come.

The military has made clear what it offers: a continuation of the old system with a little bit more sugar-coating and a little more civilian (which is to say, Islamist) power in political life. We shall soon see whether the Brotherhood is willing to settle.

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  • Lorenz Gude

    Like most Westerners I have a strong preference for democratic government but I recognize that democracy is of little use if it cannot control violent chaos. I have spent time in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and found the violent chaos of northern Mexico far worse. Egypt, as a Muslim country, is a different story – the choice is between military rule and Islamist rule, not military rule and democracy. The Islamists might come to power through a democratic election but it is unlikely that they would ever give up power by election. Since the Brotherhood has made it plain that they would go to war against Israel I’m all for the Egyptian military retaining control. Nor do I want to see the persecution of the Copts and other minorities in Egypt.

  • Jim.

    Wasn’t the fall of the Janissaries (and Mameluks) from their role as a neutral and disinterested supporter of the head of state a result of their paying more attention to business and politics than to actual military performance?

    One could argue that the disinterestedness of the modern Egyptian military fell with Farouk and never recovered under Sadat or Mubarak. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have the capabilities to challenge the military even if its combat readiness is adversely affected by attending to other concerns.

    Even so, the narrative of the Egyptian military disinterestedly doing what’s best for Egypt has holes big enough to drive a truck through. We’ll see if the MB does so with a truck full of explosives.

  • Glen

    The sorts of technological meritocracies exemplified by the Egyptian Military and the Chinese Communist Party are becoming the preferred form of government for more and more of the world’s elites. The EU Government and the U.S. federal regulatory state — which are both competing for greater power — are the West’s versions of this emerging form. And all of them are rooted in the same Keynesian bargain: what is the value of liberty when the people are starving?

  • Jim.


    One could argue that technical meritocracy was the preferred mode of The Party in Orwell’s 1984.

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