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Why Is Morsi Shilling For The Military?

Mohammed Morsi

The NYT ran an interesting story today, reporting that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi appeared in public yesterday with the country’s head military leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. el-Sissi denied the accusations that the military “detained, tortured and killed civilian protesters during the 18-day uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak,” while Morsi “announced nominal promotions for the general and other military leaders.”

Morsi is the country’s first non-military president, and prior to his presidency he led the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group the military suppressed under Mubarak’s rule. So, if you haven’t been following Egypt too closely, a joint public appearance like this might be unexpected. And it gets even more strange. Morsi convened a commission to look into civilian deaths under the anti-Mubark uprising. It found that the military, contra el-Sissi’s claims, was responsible for killings and abductions during the revolt. Yet Morsi has declined to make the report public.

Why is Morsi being so deferential to the military? The short answer: the Egyptian military is gaining ground in the struggle for power, as the Muslim Brotherhood government’s economic failures weaken its hold on public opinion.

To understood this explanation you have to first understand a bit about the background to Egypt’s current political situation. The concept of an autonomous military in control of a ‘deep state’ has a long history in Islamic countries. 20th century examples alone included the republics of Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan. But many monarchies also work in this way. The king is the commander-in-chief of the military, and the palace and the military together control the ‘commanding heights’ of power. Civilian politicians exercise limited power so long as they stay away from the red lines established by the deep state.

In the region’s history, this model of governance has been around for a long time. Both Islamic and pre-Islamic empires often worked in this way.

One way to look at the Egyptian revolution so far, then, is that the military has been shifting its political base from the corrupt heirs of Nasser’s Arab nationalist movement to the longtime rivals of the Nasserites, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood hoped that its popular support would enable it to do what the Islamists have done in Turkey: sharply curtail the military’s power. The Egyptian military is more pious than the fiercely secular Turks, so there is less pulling and tugging over the role of religion in Egypt than there is in Turkey. Lots of military officers are quite comfortable with the idea of a stricter religious tone in society as a whole, and are willing to go along with the Brotherhood on this. But the Brotherhood hoped to exert some authority over the military in other areas where the two groups’ interests might not be as well-aligned.

But Egypt’s economy is too weak and the government has failed so far to chart a course to economic recovery. As a result, the civilian government depends more and more on the military for the backing that keeps it in power. On foreign policy and matters of basic state security, therefore, the military is probably worrying much less about Muslim Brotherhood challenges these days.

It’s a stable moment in an unstable revolution. The Brotherhood and the military appear to be getting along reasonably well, but Egypt as a whole is continuing its downhill slide. The real question going forward is whether the economic situation can stabilize so that the political situation can stabilize. The signs here are not good.

But from the point of view of the military establishment, the status quo looks pretty good. There’s a civilian government out there, visible enough to be blamed by the public when things go wrong with the economy or the administration of the country, but weak enough to be unable to challenge the military dominance in areas that the generals care about.

[Photo of Mohammed Morsi courtesy of Getty Images.]

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  • Anthony

    Morsi’s behavior perhaps tied to nature of Egypt’s extractive insitutional patterns. That is, historic politics and economics of nation trend toward narrow elite rule. The Brotherhood may have replaced Mubarak yet failed to establish transforming political structures thereby creating a similar system (military elites and governing elites maintaining an Egyptian pattern). The status quo – control by a narrow elite.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I have read that Morsi, apparently following the Turkish pattern, put his own people into senior positions in the Egyptian military. It is heartening that that he may not have been able to achieve his goals because the economy erodes his power. I think one possibility is that when the economic crisis comes hotter heads will prevail and the Salafists will take power and send the military off on jihad against the Israelis. Or perhaps Egypt will descend into chaos and the military will step forward to take power directly as happens in Pakistan when the civilians fail.

  • JC

    And quite good for Israel too. One could see the Israelis and Egyptian military waiting for the MB to implode, then a military backed strongman and some deal to use Israeli gas.


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