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Evolution of the Egyptian Military

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Video Transcript:

After meeting with members of the Interior Ministry and police forces, Egypt’s defense minister announced he would host a dialogue Dec. 12 with all Egyptian factions to try and reach a solution to the current political crisis.

In the past week, we have seen the military become more directly and overtly involved in Egypt’s political crisis. The military has deployed forces to the presidential palace. It has publicly warned against violence in the protests and stressed that point with F-16 flyovers over Tahrir Square. The Muslim Brotherhood-led government has also granted the military the power of arrest and a mandate to work with the police in providing security for the referendum.

But the military has been central to the resolution of this crisis all along. Behind the scenes, negotiations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military have been taking place over the power balance between the armed forces and the civilian government. The military has to an extent exploited the opposition protests to apply additional pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood. A closer, however, look reveals that the two sides are working out an arrangement.

The Constitution draft, after all, already ensures many of the military’s interests. The Morsi government has also, for now, stayed clear of a redline in keeping the bulk of the state’s economic assets in the hands of the military. The military will continue making moves through the judiciary, the police and other institutions to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in check, but it so far does not appear interested in obstructing the referendum. The military needs a civilian partner and at this stage, the Brotherhood is really the only viable option.

There have been doubts as to whether the military will be able to maintain its independence in an Islamist-run Egypt. So far, the military’s status appears to be intact and everyone can now see that the Muslim Brotherhood cannot control the street without the military. Over time, however, it will be important to watch how much success Egypt’s Islamist forces have in trying to subordinate the military to a civilian government.

In stark contrast to the secularist days of the Nasserite era, Egypt has become much more overtly religious in the past couple of decades. Given Egypt’s universal conscription, the armed forces also came to reflect this increased level of religiosity. The question is whether a more observant army will eventually translate into a strong ally for an Islamist-led government.

To date, promotions to senior ranks in the Egyptian military have been made after heavy screening for political, including Islamist, leanings. This was essential to the military’s ability to maintain its independence from the political sphere. During the Mubarak era, the regime built up loyalty from the military under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi by giving the military control over public sector assets to help keep them economically satisfied.

Much of the military elite -- around 70 army officers -- were forced into retirement when Morsi came into power. With that top, corrupt layer removed, the government is making room for advancement from the mid and lower ranks. The current defense minister and army chief appointed by Morsi are both believed to be religious military men and appear to have a strong working relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. That's not a coincidence.

This does not translate necessarily into the military losing its independence to an Islamist political ideology. As this crisis has revealed, the military has been very calculating in its moves to both contain the Muslim Brotherhood and work with the unavoidable reality of an Islamist government.  The evolution of this relationship bears close watching in the years ahead.

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