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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: Egypt’s dangerous game of Army, Mosque and Square

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-07-02 at 07.04.44As I write, Mohammed Morsi’s address to the nation has been postponed indefinitely. Is he negotiating with the army, or his own movement? Is there a deal being done? And if so, how much will the Egyptian president have to concede?  

Yesterday afternoon, Egypt’s army chose to raise the pressure. It gave the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition, the brothers camped at Nasr City, the others around Tahrir square, 48 hours to resolve their differences before it threatened to step in. The questions on every analyst’s mind: Is this a coup? Has the military decided to return? Has counter-revolution arrived? 

The ultimatum came after a day of vast protests in Egyptian cities. Largely peaceful, with the exception of violence against the Brotherhood, whose headquarters was burnt and looted. Importantly, the police did nothing to protect it. Neither did the Brotherhood itself, perhaps nervous that had it dispatched its toughs (of which it has many) to defend its building from the mob, it would have ensured precisely the violence the army was hoping to use as a pretext to intervene.

Despite the split screens on news channels, Egypt divides not into two camps: government and opposition, but three: army, mosque and square.  The revolution so far has been a series of errors growing from a single mistake: each camp thinking it had only one rival. The square — the young, urban, more liberal population — found the promise of the revolution they that they started in 2011 bypassing the Brotherhood dashed. Subverted by what they saw as a deal cooked up between the brothers and the soldiers of the interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Morsi, though only the Brotherhood’s reserve candidate and elected with a bare majority of the vote, ruled as though he had obtained a thumping mandate in a united country. He gauged, accurately, that the square would support him against the army and deftly decapitated the military leadership after terrorists based in the Sinai killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.  He extended Brotherhood control over transitional institutions: first the constituent assembly, and then the parliament. When, last November, this proved too much for the (admittedly Mubarak-packed) courts, he decreed himself beyond their oversight.

This lost him the support of the square. Days of rioting followed, leaving the mosque isolated. The latest, vast, crowds have grown from that fateful error. Orchestrated by a movement called Tamarod (the rebels), they have collected a petition thought to number 22 million people calling for Morsi to go. Such organisation doesn’t come cheap. Though it’s impossible to assess the Brotherhood’s claims that the rebels are bankrolled by a counterrevolutionary alliance of the Army and the old Mubarak elite, the crowd gathered in Tahrir square appears evenly divided between supporters and opponents of military intervention. Army and square, as Egyptians might say, are ‘one hand’ against the mosque.

How things turn out depends on two, crucial, questions. What kind of coup do the soldiers design? Will they be satisfied with a new regime that protects their economic interests and social status, but allows the rest of Egypt to work its way towards a more mature democracy? Or do they want a return to something like the old dictatorship? Is it their turn to make believe that the people in Tahrir are all on their side? This depends, as much as anything, on which soldiers move first. During a coup, the power of force has a strange logic indeed. Speed, surprise, and sheer bloody-mindedness can make all the difference.

The second is how the Brotherhood reacts. Do they acquiesce? Do they hope merely to disrupt the new regime and make it ungovernable? To transfer to its new leaders the popular anger at the  worsening economic crisis that had up to now been directed at them? Or do they fight? Stage a desperate battle, and dare the Army, still very much dependent on American aid, to show the teeth it never bared in defence of Mubarak? 

An elected but authoritarian-minded president, ruling with a bare majority of support alienates more and more of the society he is nominally in charge of, and faces millions of protesters demanding his ouster. When Western foreign affairs experts praised the Muslim Brotherhood for following the “Turkish Model”, this was not what they had in mind.


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