Thursday, December 20, 2012

Turmoil in Egypt makes some pine for army’s steady hand

On Friday, the eve of the second stage of voting in the two-part referendum that will approve their new fundamentalist-leaning charter, Muslim Brotherhood members plan a massive march after midday prayers in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria – a show of force bound to raise national tensions.

All this leads many in the opposition to think the unthinkable and call for Egypt’s army to step in. And the army, viewed recently with suspicion, has launched a campaign to convince the public it is the people’s friend. Throughout Cairo there are billboards showing a soldier in full kit cradling a baby in his left arm. The line underneath reads: “The Army, The People: One Hand”

“I think the army would be better than these guys,” said Walid Hamada, 33, a small-business owner who was out protesting at the presidential palace this week against the Islamist nature of the proposed constitution. “The army could do a better job keeping things stable while we move to real democracy and a more balanced constitution.”

Hard as it is to imagine, “a lot of people feel this way,” said Emad Gad, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Hard to imagine, indeed, because it was the same army that was the power behind Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, and the army that held power in the 17 months after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster early last year. At that time, there were frequent protests against the military rule.

“They don’t really like the army,” Mr. Gad explained, “but they prefer it to what’s happening now.”

“Even leftists feel this way,” said Mr. Gad, who was a candidate for the Social Democrats in the parliamentary elections early this year.

Former foreign minister and Arab League head Amr Mousa expressed discomfort at the prospect of the army returning to political power. “I have heard this talk,” said Mr. Mousa, a leader of the principal opposition group, the National Salvation Front. “But I hope we will achieve our goals by democratic means.”

Throughout the recent protests and deadly clashes between opponents and supporters of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s military has remained remarkably neutral.

Even its armoured vehicles positioned around the presidential palace make an effort to appear benign. The tanks’ barrels are pointed to the side, not toward the protesters in the street, and there are no machine guns set up in the turrets of the armoured personnel carriers.

So far, the military command has gone to great lengths to assure everyone it is not taking sides.

Last week, Mr. Morsi ordered the military to prevent attacks on his palace and on Muslim Brotherhood offices around the country. He even accorded it powers to arrest civilians, something he had denounced when in opposition. The chief of the military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, responded by inviting opposition leaders to his office for a lunch aimed at reducing tensions.

By seeking the army’s help, Mr. Morsi had thought he could “send a message to the opposition that the military is on his side and that no force will be able to depose him,” said Hafez abu Seada, chairman of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights.

But Gen. al-Sissi outmanoeuvred him. And a good thing, too, Mr. Abu Seada said. “We do not want the army to be dragged into politics.”

An apparently angry Mr. Morsi ordered his military chief to call off the meeting with the opposition. The General did so, but his position has not changed.

On Tuesday, Gen. al-Sissi again publicly warned that the nation was becoming polarized. “The divisions are affecting the economy and threaten social peace, requiring of us solidarity, renouncing differences and putting public interests first,” he was quoted as saying – an unusual position for a military commander to take.

But Egypt’s military is unusual. In theory, it reports to the president, but in practice, it is a law unto itself. As such, it may be the only institution to which the opposition can turn for help.

Retired General Hossam Sweilem, a former tank and regional commander, said the army pledged after the Six-Day War in 1967 it would not get involved in politics. Before, he explained, the army had been a political tool of then-president Gamal abdel Nasser. “But it isn’t aloof from the people,” he added. “There is great empathy for the people’s concerns,” he said.

He cautioned that the army would intervene only under certain circumstances. “If the army intervened,” Gen. Sweilem said, “it would be to end severe bloodshed” and would insist first that martial law be declared – meaning the army would be in control, not answering to the president.

The military command would not want to be seen as siding with the President, explained Gen. Sweilem. And, before turning power back to him, “I believe it would insist that the President reconsider all those articles of the constitution that provoked the opposition” in the first place.

Mr. Gad agrees that such a scenario could happen. But why would Gen. al-Sissi, a devout Muslim who was appointed military chief by President Morsi, do such a thing?

Because, Mr. Gad said, “at the end of the day, al-Sissi is an Egyptian first and a Muslim second. He does not want to change this country’s fundamental identity” by siding with the Islamists.

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