On Dec. 6, Morsi met with the heads of the Egyptian military, the prime minister, the Cabinet and other senior government and military officials as Republican Guard forces deployed tanks and armored personnel carriers to restore calm at the presidential palace. The Republican Guard also ordered a ban on all protests after 3 p.m. The deployment follows two consecutive nights of mass protests in front of the presidential palace in the Heliopolis neighborhood, with clashes the night of Dec. 5 between supporters of the president and opposition groups. Several were killed and dozens were injured in those clashes.
The fact that the military was involved in the talks shows the enduring power of the armed forces. Morsi cannot simply control the military; he must bargain with it. The military's strength resides in its historical role in domestic intervention. In Egypt, political crises can beget political gridlock. The military can break that gridlock, but the decision of whether it chooses to do so lies with the senior military leadership. Morsi did not call on the Republican Guard the way U.S. President Barack Obama would call on the National Guard. The military acted only when it wanted to.
However, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are not completely powerless. They can mobilize political supporters and incite street violence, unrest and instability. Notably, the Brotherhood is a far cry from the former ruling National Democratic Party. The former is not as submissive as the latter, and its agenda does not correspond to the military's. The Brotherhood simply is not in a position to command the military.
Subordinate to Authority
This is the reality in Egypt. The situation has been clouded with uncertainty since August, when Morsi forced the retirement of several senior military leaders, including Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and armed forces chief Sami Annan. The question was whether Morsi's moves made the military subordinate to civilian authority.
The Dec. 6 meeting shows that this is not the case. The military allowed the situation to evolve until Morsi was desperate and had to negotiate with the military leadership. A bargain may be forthcoming, but ultimately the deal they make matters less than the balance of power. The fact that Morsi had no choice but to ask for the military's help — and the fact that the military did not act before negotiations — confirms that Morsi does not control the military.
Regardless of how the negotiations play out, Morsi's power has been diminished. The military has shown the public that it, not the civilian government, is the arbiter of power in Egypt. Notably, the military does not want to completely destroy the presidency. It needs a civilian partner, and the Brotherhood currently is its only viable option. But it does not want the Brotherhood to become too powerful either.
Egypt's political transition will go on. The Brotherhood will continue to consolidate its hold on power, and the opposition will continue to oppose it. But it will be the military that retains its independence.