Egypt's Military Still Plays Kingmaker

12/13/2012 06:34 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2013

As Egypt prepares for an historic constitutional referendum and political polarization intensifies, its military constantly advocates neutrality. It has actively encouraged dialogue between Islamists and opposition to overcome differences. It publicly refuses to suppress demonstrators. Apparently, it remains above the political fray. After all, as guardians of the republic, the military's self-professed objective is protecting Egypt and all Egyptians. However, another critical aim is protecting its own interests and privileges spanning the political, security and commercial realms which are largely enshrined in the new draft constitution. Overall, Egypt's military still plays kingmaker behind the scenes.

Nearly two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the deep state of Egypt's military-security establishment remains largely intact. President Mohamed Morsi's "removal" of General Tantawi, former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was merely window-dressing within the grand scope of events. It was largely designed to strengthen Morsi's image and the perception of prevailing civilian leadership. Morsi never silenced the military, which largely dictated its terms and conditions as guaranteed in the referendum's new charter.

For now, the military has publicly recused, but not removed, itself from the political process. It maintains a wary eye as developments unfold. Necessity will determine the military's actions should any emerging risks threaten its favorably evolving status quo.

Implied in the armed forces' mindset as national protectors is the inherent right to intervene in the political process when required in exceptional circumstances. Despite general reluctance, its ability to do so should not be underestimated, particularly to counter any attempt to encroach on its domains or dealing with overwhelming public sentiment against elected officials.

For the armed forces, Morsi has thus far proven amenable and useful. However, he is not indispensable. Should he defy expectations or challenge the military establishment, early retirement cannot be excluded. Military acquiescence to the courts' dissolution of the democratically elected parliament earlier this provides a reminder.

Furthermore, Morsi's recent granting of police powers to the military during the referendum process should not be misconstrued as prevailing executive power. Despite technically obeying the president's orders, the military is primarily pursuing its own interests by securing the actual process that ensures its exclusive status in law.

Morsi and the Islamists had little choice but reaching a constitutional accommodation with the military, and to an extent vice-versa. The alternative was endless confrontation, stonewalling and paralysis. For now, the armed forces remains a key ally in the Islamists' broader strategy.

In the short-term, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) aim to neutralize the political opposition with the military's implicit consent, and active assistance if needed. In the long-term, the MB intends to slowly absorb and Islamize the army, particularly by targeting the younger officer corps which constitutes Egypt's future military leadership.

During the recent constitutional crisis and beyond, Islamists promote themselves, and to a lesser extent the military, as agents of order and stability in the new Egypt. On the other hand, it brands the opposition as counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, agents of anarchy and disorder and relics of the former Mubarak regime.

Until now, the MB's greatest strengths remain its ability to organize and mobilize politically and exploiting opposition divisions and weaknesses. However, its greatest challenge, and future determinant, remains the ability to deliver. To label its brief reign in power as mediocre is an understatement.

The recent crisis provides stark lessons for the broad opposition composed of liberals, secularists, minorities, leftists and some Mubarak loyalists. Formation of the National Salvation Front (NSF) marks a constructive start. However, the opposition must consolidate ranks and rapidly transform into an effective political alternative with approaching elections in 2013. It must stand for something and propose policies and not simply oppose Islamists. Otherwise, it risks further undermining and increasingly ceding the initiative to the MB. After all, the Islamists are not only altering the terms of the debate but entirely shifting the goalposts into their own territory and beyond a secular context.

Overall, Morsi has managed to impose the constitutional referendum in less than a month since sparking the crisis with his controversial decree in late November. The price paid: numerous deaths, over 500 injuries, and a more divided Egypt teetering on the brink of increased social upheaval and political violence. Morsi's actions justify criticism of orchestrating an Islamist power grab which created shockwaves in Egypt and beyond. This will both encourage and complicate matters for Morsi's ideological acolytes throughout the region. Other Arab leaders are undoubtedly bracing themselves.

The jury is still out on whether Morsi is a calculated risk-taker or an amateur ideologue who punched above his weight by chance. Nevertheless, Morsi stood his ground, skillfully deployed delaying tactics, enjoyed firm support from loyalists and offered no real compromises but constant justifications for his actions. For now at least, his gamble and apparent overreach may have paid off. However, short-term electoral triumphs for Islamists may prove a long-term pyrrhic victory.

Rhetorical concessions will only mark temporary truces in the struggle to shape Egypt's future. Increasingly excluding others from the political process is ultimately self-defeating. It will only plant the seeds for greater discord and further destabilize Egypt and political transformation throughout the broader region.