Egypt’s Army and Muslim Brothers Join in a Dance of Power

Joshua Stacher Apr 29, 2011

Illustration: Julie LaquerEgypt’s popular revolution is now more than two months old, but so far it has produced a structural change in the governing coalition of Egypt without resulting in regime change per se.

That coalition, as it evolved under deposed President Husni Mubarak, was made up of the president and his circle of rotating ministers, the president’s son Gamal Mubarak’s economic reform team, crony capitalists who grew rich under Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar Sadat, the intelligence and security services and the army. The regime’s strategy for presenting a “democratic” face to the West was to place select ministers, crony capitalists and members of the economic reform team at the head of its electoral vehicle, the now-disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP).

The military, though it has been the prime beneficiary of aid packages from Washington, was an institution in decline as it was forced to compete for resources with the Interior Ministry and Gamal’s team, composed mostly of a younger, flashier generation of crony capitalists. Reports during and after the revolution have likely overstated the military’s role in the economy, which in fact has been shrinking. Mubarak’s ouster allowed the military to return to prominence, while the disciples of the Washington Consensus were dropped from the ruling coalition and various police and intelligence services, purveyors of domestic spying and torture, were re-disciplined under the military’s hierarchy.


As Egypt’s citizenry commanded the initiative for the first time since the January 1977 bread riots, the army faced a predicament. Despite deploying tanks in the capital on Jan. 28, it seems to have calculated that its crowd control capacity was all or almost nothing. It confronted a Hobson’s choice in the revolutionary situation between the grimmest of repression — firing automatic weapons at the assembled protesters — and the Interior Ministry’s old techniques of tear gas and hand-to-hand combat that the crowds had already defeated. Debate has swirled around the question of whether an order to fire was given and disobeyed, but the question is moot. The military, once it determined that Mubarak could not survive, opted out of the Hobson’s choice. Indeed, it staged shows of support for the crowds, going so far as to turn the turrets of tanks toward the presidential palace as revolutionaries gathered outside the building on the morning of Feb. 11, the day Mubarak was booted out.

Yet its decision not to disperse the crowds presented the military with a political problem. Since it had posed as the people’s champion for 18 days, its crowd control capacity was even more restricted. Meanwhile, it was left holding Mubarak’s bag of hated policies from the emergency law to enforcement of the blockade of Gaza. The NDP was discredited, demobilized (save for some hired thugs) and subsequently dissolved by a court order issued April 16. Additionally, the police were gone from the streets, which left an ambient disorder and lawlessness in Cairo and other cities. This feeling was sharpened by reports that state security agents had emptied several prisons of convicts.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces needed means of outreach, not repression, as it entered this new political era. Without a plan, they built upon what they inherited from Vice President ‘Umar Sulayman, who in his 12 days in power had begun to design a way out of the predicament before he and Mubarak were jettisoned.

On Feb. 6, with the wounds of open battle in Tahrir Square still fresh, Sulayman called for “national dialogue” between the regime and the opposition. Organizations representing protesting youth eschewed participation in such efforts until Mubarak stepped down, but other elements accepted, including formal opposition parties, self-appointed “wise men” who were trying to broker a constitutional compromise and the Muslim Brothers.

According to defectors from the Brothers’ ranks, the initial dialogue led to a series of secret meetings between Sulayman and the Islamist group in which the vice president asked the Brothers to send their members home from the square in exchange for an expanded political role. After Sulayman departed, this agreement seems to have stayed in place for Ahmad Shafiq’s short-lived government, which lasted from Jan. 31 to March 3, and it appears to still remain operative now that ‘Isam Sharaf is premier.

When Sharaf was introduced to the masses in Tahrir Square on March 4, he claimed, “I am here to draw my legitimacy from you. You are the ones to whom legitimacy belongs.” A Muslim Brother leader, Muhammad al-Baltagi, appeared by his side. Earlier, the Supreme Council had appointed a Muslim Brother to the eight-member committee charged with drafting amendments to the suspended 1971 constitution.


Muhammad Habib, a former deputy guide of the Brothers, says, “The military realized they could not control domestic stability yet still uphold unpopular foreign policies. They are using the Brothers to serve as this domestic source of stability.” While it is impossible to know for sure if such a deal was struck, the patterns of interaction emerging in post-Mubarak Egypt seem to confirm the thesis.

Since the fall of Mubarak, the Brothers’ decision-making body, the Guidance Office, has been a reliable partner of the generals. The Brothers’ communiqués have been filled with praise for the Supreme Council’s pronouncements. When, shortly after Mubarak’s exit, sectarian clashes broke out south of Cairo, the Brothers dispatched teams there to lead reconciliation talks between Copts and Muslims. They continue to support the army’s goal of “national unity” through outreach to the Coptic church hierarchy and meetings with Christian youth.

Meanwhile, the Brothers’ leadership implored the rank and file to quit protesting and return to work for the sake of the economy, and then to vote “yes” on the March 19 referendum on the constitutional amendments, which was endorsed by 77 percent of voters at the polls. Indeed, the Brothers have been models of acquiescence compared to the man everyone thought would be the military’s candidate in prospective elections, former Foreign Minister and serving Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.

Moussa has dissented from the Supreme Council’s course, voting “no” on the amendments and publicly criticizing the army’s management of the transition. For some, such as Muhammad Habib, the reason for the apparent military-Muslim Brother entente lies in groupthink inside the Guidance Office, which he says has blinded them to the role they are playing. Habib believes the Brothers badly miscalculated in betting on the army to oversee a transition favorable to the Brothers’ interests. He scoffs, “After they smelled freedom, they ran behind the council.”

In interviews, the Brothers say past repression and their adjustment to the newly unfettered political space affects their actions today. Khayrat al-Shatir, a senior Brother who has spent 12 of the last 19 years in prison, explained, “The group recognizes that times have changed. We cannot manage our meetings and information in the way that we had. But this was never a function of secrecy, as analysts said. It was because of the oppressive climate in which we had to operate.”

Muslim Brother youths have reportedly mounted an internal intifada, presumably against the Brothers’ cooperation with the army, but leaders are not forthcoming on the topic. Muhammad Saad al-Kitatni, head of the Brothers’ delegation in the parliament serving from 2005 to 2010, says vaguely, “There are some ideas coming in, but there are also discussions taking place. The youth just met with the general guide last week.” Al-Shatir contends that most youth who object to the society’s present course are not full members of the Muslim Brothers, only sympathizers.

As for future plans, the Brothers are thin on details — whether the question is which districts they plan to contest in September’s legislative elections or under what banner they will run. Al-Kitatni has been named head of a new Freedom and Justice Party affiliated with the Brothers, but little information is available about this party other than the stipulation that “any Egyptian citizen that agrees with the program and internal platform can join.” When asked who else from the Brothers would be joining, al-Kitatni responded, “People are still discussing this. Right now, it’s just me.”

Before the revolution, the Muslim Brothers were highly critical of the methods Egypt’s rulers used to circumscribe the political process. Not today. On March 26, for example, the Supreme Council released a draft law that included a ban on parties founded on sectarian, religious or regional bases, just like the Mubarak-era law. Under Mubarak, this clause was widely understood as targeting the Brothers.

Rather than protest this fresh injustice, however, the Brothers took it in stride. Essam al-Erian, a prominent spokesman for the group, shrugged it off: “The Muslim Brothers group will not turn into a party. The political party we are now founding is a civil one, based on the principles of citizenship.” Perhaps the Brothers are willing to play the same game with the army that they played with Mubarak, accepting that their society is technically outlawed and cannot enter the political arena except under thin disguises. If so, the military-Muslim Brothers alliance might ensure a degree of social peace, but would hardly be a step toward a transparent and truly free political system in Egypt.


A report published in late February by the International Crisis Group argues that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is keen to move to a civilian government as quickly as possible. The motive is to relieve the generals of political responsibility when the high expectations raised by the revolution deflate and discontent settles back in. But things may be changing.

First, one should not mistake the army’s reluctance to govern for an aversion to rule. The army is accustomed to ruling Egypt in some measure, though with a civilian visage. The Supreme Council was compelled to take the stage when Mubarak was dismissed, but it would happily return behind the curtains if it were confident that a civilian government would defer to military prerogatives. The question is which political figure would be credible, to the West and the Egyptian people, as a face to “civilianize” the regime.
Much speculation has centered on Amr Moussa, whose mostly unblemished record of cooperation with the system seemingly made him an ideal candidate to protect the military’s political and economic interests while appearing to represent change. Such a deal would produce an informal closed power-sharing agreement excluding the very democratizing forces that ushered in the military as governors.

Yet by rejecting the referendum despite the military’s widely known support for the proposed constitutional amendments, Moussa and other formally announced presidential candidates threw in their lot with revolutionary elements opposed to incremental change. Are these candidates out of touch with the populace that supports the military, the Brothers and a fast transition? And can the army, which returned to glory for sending Mubarak off into the Sharm al-Sheikh sunset, simply walk away despite enjoying such broad and deep popularity? Most say it is too soon to tell.


The revolution is far from over. Yet, as the Islamists continue to expand their political influence, many of the secular revolutionary forces may have second thoughts. If the Brothers racked up large numbers of seats in September’s parliamentary elections, how would Egyptian society and Egypt’s external patrons respond?

Given such uncertainties, it is possible that someone like Army Chief of Staff Gen. Sami ‘Inan could run for executive office. Like many of his fellow generals, ‘Inan is now using the same social networking tools that helped the revolutionaries publicize their achievements in January and February. Most, however, think that another general-president is a non-starter, with the liberal Ghad party leader Wa’il Nawwara calling such a prospect “impossible.”

If putting up its own candidate seems too brazen, the military could run a candidate such as the docile new Prime Minister ‘Isam Sharaf, who then could appoint a vice presidential candidate who happens to be a former general.

Over the last few months the Supreme Council has issued increasingly Mubarak-like laws. On March 23, the council’s ministerial cabinet promulgated a new law saying that those who harm the economy with public demonstrations could be fined up to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (over $83,000) and/or imprisoned. The law targets sectors like the police, which have struck continuously since Feb. 11, but it could be applied to the industrial actions and street protests that composed the revolution.

Similarly, on March 30, Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin announced a “constitutional declaration” wherein the amendments ratified by referendum were nine of 63 articles, most of which reaffirmed laws of the Mubarak era. One of the more familiar stipulations was the provision that parties cannot be religious, sectarian or regional in character. For many, the declaration was a deep disappointment revealing the Supreme Council to be disdainful of consultative governance or even explanation of its reasoning.

Many Egyptians have begun to grumble about the military’s increasingly prominent role. A well-attended April 1 protest in Tahrir Square called upon Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi, Mubarak’s minister of defense, to resign from the Supreme Council and demanded swifter action toward putting the men of the deposed regime on trial for corruption and other offenses. In a move that surprised many, the military imprisoned Mubarak’s two sons on April 13 and has reportedly detained Husni Mubarak himself in a hospital. But Mubarak was already sacrificed to the crowds; the real test of the army’s commitment to democracy lies ahead.

The March 19 referendum may have led the army to bank on a silent majority of Egyptians who will cling to the institution they have known for the past 60 years in place of the Brothers or protesters who are seen as disrupting normal life. At the same time, discontent with the military is growing, and one can expect more popular mobilizations to safeguard the revolutionary process Egyptians began by heroically overthrowing their dictator of 30 years.

A great contest to define the center is under way and the outcome remains unknown. The only certainty is that after an exhilarating spring, Egypt is in for a hot summer.

Joshua Stacher is assistant professor of political science at Kent State University. This article was excerpted from a report originally published by the Middle East
Research and Information Project,

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