Egypt’s military enters the fray, but its political role remains unclear

The World

Egypt’s Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi is on the verge of losing the presidency as he battles an unprecedented street-led opposition and a rash of crippling political resignations.

The powerful military, whose generals retreated from the political limelight last year, on Monday issued Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum to resolve the crisis — or else its forces would intervene with their own “road map” for the country’s future.

Military sources leaked two key elements of the so-called road map to Reuters Tuesday, saying the army would move to both scrap the constitution and dissolve the Islamist-led parliament.

But after a turbulent, military-led transition during which Egypt’s army came under severe scrutiny both at home and abroad — and with its economic and political privileges enshrined in the Islamist-drafted constitution — why are Egypt’s armed forces returning to the fray?

The increasingly dangerous level of political polarization and potential for violence, coupled with the sheer size of the demonstrations, are likely what prompted the military to weigh in, analysts say.

More from GlobalPost: Egypt protests: Can the army keep the peace?

The army, its reputation tarnished in some circles for bloody crackdowns and authoritarian-style governance, is also eager to reassert its image as the nation’s savior in times of turmoil.

“The military understands that it is once again in a privileged position within Egyptian politics,” said Hani Sabra, Middle East analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk firm. “All sides need it more than the military needs them.”

Observers long speculated that the army was keen only to see the profits from its vast economic empire safeguarded by a new order, in addition to the right to prosecute civilians who attacked military installations.

The army maintains business holdings ranging from factories that churn out foodstuffs and appliances to lucrative real estate on the country’s coastlines. Some analysts have likened the army to a transnational conglomerate. 

But the military secured protection for its assets and military trials with the Islamist-drafted constitution signed into law in December. And the generals were content to stay out of political squabbles as long as the instability didn’t threaten their privileges.

But the risks have since grown. “The generals have decided that given the size of the protests, prolonged uncertainty and the potential for even more severe upheaval would hurt their core commercial interests,” Sabra said.

Whether or not the military will again take on a more public political role is still unclear.

Morsi Monday called the military’s bluff — saying he rejected the 48-hour ultimatum they’d imposed, and betting on the military’s reluctance to again enter politics. Despite the military’s long history with the US, the Islamists are hoping the Obama administration will prevent an army-led coup.

More from GlobalPost: Muslim Brotherhood vs. Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt

There’s a belief among Egypt’s opposition, meanwhile, that the military can halt any potential violence between pro-Morsi supporters and the anti-government protesters, as well as impose a negotiated settlement between the two sides. The opposition, led by a consortium of liberal-secular parties, has long accused Morsi of only half-hearted attempts to sit down with its leaders to hear out their grievances.

Based on conversations with Morsi and Brotherhood officials, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha center, posted on Twitter, “they seem to think [the] army jumped the gun.”

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