Less than a year after trying to stamp his authority on the military, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi now finds himself its hostage.
Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi, who was promoted to the post by Mursi in August, told the Islamist leader he would impose a military solution should politicians fail to ease their impasse by today. The ultimatum came after Egyptians took to the streets demanding the ouster of Mursi, 61, and his Muslim Brotherhood backers. The president rejected the warning, vowing to defend “legitimacy” with his blood.
Helicopters buzzed overhead in Cairo yesterday and armored vehicles took up positions. The military’s intervention renews the six-decade-long power struggle between the armed forces and Islamists, suppressed under army-led regimes since the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy until the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. It now risks undermining the first democratically elected Egyptian head of state amid a deepening economic crisis that has left the country of 85 million people grappling with shortages in fuel, power and dollars.
“The military has always been hostile not only to Mursi but to Islamists in general and they were always rivals for power in Egypt,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst in Cairo at the International Crisis Group, which compiles reports on countries in conflict. “Mursi expected that people once they come into a leadership position would be loyal. Obviously that strategy has shown its failure.”
Al-Seesi, 58, a general who completed courses in the U.S. and U.K. and served as military attaché in Saudi Arabia, replaced Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Mubarak’s defense chief for two decades, Tantawi ran the country after the ouster of the president, himself once the commander of the air force.
Islamists accused Tantawi of using the transition period to curb the power of the presidency to safeguard the military’s political and economic interests, which range from pest control to household appliances and childcare. It also receives $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid a year.
“We saw the removal of Tantawi as part of an arrangement with sections of the army that were willing to give President Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood a chance,” said Firas Abi Ali, London-based senior manager of Middle East and North Africa country risk at research firm IHS. “To fix the economy you need a broad political consensus to make some difficult decisions. Mursi failed to build the consensus needed for that.”
The army’s ultimatum was issued after the military had warned last week it would intervene if the various political forces did not come to some sort of an agreement within a week.
The military, though, said it has no desire to be in power, and spokesman Ahmed Mohamed Ali said by telephone last night the deadline doesn’t mean the army has a plan already in place.
“After the deadline, the army will call different parties for talks to set the road map,” he said. “The army will not set the road map unilaterally.”
Mursi’s Islamist backers had amassed in their thousands in Cairo, vowing to defend the president against what they described as a coup against legitimacy.
“We expect violent unrest in the next few days among rival protest groups,” said Abi Ali at IHS. “But, ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough to force its way, with the Army and millions of protesters opposing it.”
Egyptians are mired in deepening poverty and sectarian violence. Unemployment is above 13 percent and economic growth is near its slowest pace in two decades.
Thousands of flag-waving anti-Mursi protesters cheered Al-Seesi’s July 1 statement, which was read on state-run television. A group of military helicopters flew in formation over Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the revolt that ultimately brought Mursi to power, dangling Egyptian flags.
Investors also welcomed the prospect of military intervention, with the benchmark EGX 30 stock index jumping 4.9 percent by the close in Cairo yesterday, the most in a year.
The influence the army has in Egypt contrasts with Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has curbed its powers over the past decade. Erdogan has turned the country’s National Security Council into an advisory body and jailed hundreds of officers on charges of plotting to overthrow him. The military has ousted four Turkish governments since 1960.
While Mursi’s standing among Egyptians dropped by half to 28 percent in his first year in office, more than 90 percent of them said they had confidence in the army, higher than any other institution, according to a poll by Washington-based Zogby Research Services released on June 17.
“Al-Seesi has been very careful to nurture the relationship between army and the people,” El-Shimy of Crisis Group said. “He has definitely been winning hearts and minds.”
That reflects traditional efforts by the military to keep the population onside. Al-Seesi ordered the armed forces to supply kitchen equipment, including cookers made in military-supervised factories, to Al-Azhar University in Cairo after incidents of food poisoning among students.
It also harks back to the 1950s when President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who championed unity under the Arab rather than Muslim banner, clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood after accusing it of an assassination attempt in Alexandria.
Successive governments at times tolerated the group and at times cracked down on its leaders, sending them to prison and confiscating their financial assets.
A graduate of the Cairo-based military academy in 1977, Al-Seesi served as director of military intelligence and reconnaissance before the promotion, according to his official Facebook page. He also spent a year at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Al-Seesi belongs to a generation that “was more committed to helping the democratic experiment take its course but increasingly felt that the political situation is unsustainable,” El-Shimy said.