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Jan 31, 2013 | 15:17 GMT

In Egypt, a Different Kind of Military Intervention

In Egypt, a Different Kind of Military Intervention
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

The Egyptian military appears to be playing a central role in preventing the state's collapse. After nearly a week of violent protests throughout the country, Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Mousa, two leaders of the National Salvation Front — a largely secular and liberal umbrella group for the political opposition — now appear to have tempered their rhetoric. On Jan. 31, they participated in a national dialogue, calling for further talks with the Muslim Brotherhood, the military and all other political factions to end the violence. Their sudden willingness to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood did not simply stem from protest fatigue; it was the result of warnings from the military.

After participating in the national dialogue, ElBaradei said he was optimistic that each faction would do what it could to reconcile and that further negotiations were planned. His conciliatory remarks stood in marked contrast to the previous week's barrage of criticisms aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and the liberal opposition's repeated refusals to engage with the Islamist government. Though there were several motivations behind the protests that have wracked Cairo, Port Said, Suez and Ismailia in recent days, it was apparent that those driving the protests were keen on using the country's rapidly deteriorating economic condition and ideological polarization to force a collapse of the government.

This is not a scenario that the Egyptian armed forces wish to see. While the military is happy to see the Muslim Brotherhood take the blame for the country's myriad problems and to see its popularity erode, the Brotherhood still represents the largest and most popular political movement in the country and thus cannot be sidelined. The military has no interest in intervening or governing the state; it would rather remain in a behind-the-scenes political role.

Moreover, the Brotherhood, realizing that it simply cannot control the streets without the military, has been much more accommodating to military interests, at least for now, than the secularist-liberal camp led by ElBaradei and Mousa, whose intransigence over the military's influence in post-Mubarak Egypt was exposed in the lead-up to the drafting of the constitution. A government collapse would deprive the military of a working partner and provide more political space for fringe parties on both sides of the political spectrum, including ultraconservative Salafists, who advocate the strict enforcement of Sharia, and ultraliberal politicians, who want a military completely subordinate to civilian rule. Furthermore, another major disruption in the government would derail ongoing negotiations over a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that the state is relying on to stem the free fall of the Egyptian pound, prevent a further drain on government coffers to defend the currency and calm investors overall.

A Stern Warning

The military leadership has therefore intervened to keep Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government intact. Stratfor has learned that Egyptian military chief and defense minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met privately with ElBaradei and Mousa before the national dialogue. Apparently it was a heated meeting — al-Sisi was rumored to have sternly lectured the two opposition leaders over their behavior. Al-Sisi warned that if Morsi goes, the Egyptian state will go with him because the country would fragment to the point that even the military may not be able to reassert control. He also allegedly made clear that the military is not interested in a government collapse that would require an army intervention. Though not all the details of this meeting are known, it appears that al-Sisi's warning got through to the two opposition leaders.

Many have misinterpreted al-Sisi's previous statements from Jan. 29 — he warned of a possible collapse of the state — as a sign that the military would use the political crisis to unseat the Muslim Brotherhood. To the contrary, al-Sisi's message was intended primarily for the country's liberal opposition leaders, who were driving the protests. Al-Sisi was expressing his concern over having frustrated youths, facing years of unemployment in distressed economic conditions, resorting to mob tactics. He also expressed concern that the threat would build over time if the youths continue to be exploited.

The military is trying to avoid a situation in which even its own forces would be unable to control the streets. Were that to happen, the state would be in real danger of collapse. Al-Sisi's behavior indicates that the military is far more interested in keeping the Morsi government intact than it is in facilitating an army intervention in Egypt.

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