The Corner

Are We Really Back to Relying on the Egyptian Military to Save the Day?

Back when Mubarak was clinging to power and the Tahrir Square rioting was intensifying, I cautioned that it would be foolish for the West to assume that the Egyptian military — principal recipient of tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars over the last 40 years — would step in and stop the country from falling into the grip of Islamists. The Egyptian military is a reflection of Egyptian society which, as we have now seen in election after election, is dominated by Islamists. Indeed, despite the good relations some top Egyptian military brass have had with the Pentagon, the fact is that some of the most important members of al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations have served in the Egyptian armed forces.

It is thus remarkable to hear commentators now speculating that, as Egypt is imploding, the armed forces may finally be poised to step in and save the day — perhaps even oust the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi. This supposition is based on a warning just issued by General Abdel Fatah El Sissi, the defense minister: “The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations.” 

Understand: Gen. Sissi is Morsi’s guy. As I observed here back in August, when Morsi succeeded in sacking the military’s Mubarak-era leaders, Sissi is well known in Egyptian military ranks as a Brotherhood supporter. Moreover, Sissi’s elevation was not Morsi’s only move to tame the military. As recounted in another column at the time, Morsi installed Gen. Sedky Sobhi as army chief of staff. Sobhi is an Islamist who has called for the permanent withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East, deriding what he takes to be American hostility to sharia and American creation of the “popular grievances” that fuel al Qaeda’s popularity.

As outlined in my book Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy (which is about to be released in paperback), Morsi’s actions fit the pattern of Islamization in Turkey. There, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan steadily hollowed out the Kemalist, pro-Western military, the most important obstacle to his Islamist agenda. Things, just as we predicted, have gone south much faster in Egypt, where there never was a decades-long secularization project and where the military has always had a strong Islamist elements.

Gen. Sissi has not issued a warning to Pres. Morsi and the Brotherhood. The warning, instead, is intended for Morsi’s opposition — mainly Leftists led by Mohammed ElBaradei. The general is essentially calling for the opposition to dial down their differences with the regime and agree to dialogue. This has been Morsi’s mantra for several weeks — ever since he claimed dictatorial powers in order to protect the “constituent assembly” so it could ram through a sharia constitution without interference from the courts. The military is backing Morsi’s play.

Here’s the really interesting part: The Left does not have the numbers needed to defeat the Islamists at the ballot box. That is why the latter have won election after election, usually by overwhelming numbers, thus putting Islamists firmly in charge of the government and ensuring passage of the sharia constitution. So what has finally happened? The Left-leaning press in the West is suddenly discovering that maybe popular elections do not equal democracy after all. Maybe there really is something to the notion that democracy is not merely a procedural means by which majorities achieve power; maybe democracy, as us Islamophobes have been contending all along, really is a culture that is committed to equality and respect for such minority rights as freedom of conscience and speech.

By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that the Left is the Brotherhood’s only opposition. Egypt does have non-Leftist, pro-American factions, but they are negligible compared to the Left, which in turn is small compared to the Islamists.  

I’ve caught my share of slings and arrows over the years for stating something that ought to be obvious to anyone with eyes to see: Islamists and Leftists frequently collaborate with each other. The Grand Jihad and Spring Fever both explain why this happens. But I’ve always included this caveat: the two sides have significant differences and thus their partnerships tend to explode once the common enemy that drew them together has been defeated. That is what we are seeing in Egypt now: The Egyptian Left needed the Islamists in order to overthrow Mubarak, but is now chafing under the Islamists’ theocratic totalitarianism. The progressive Western media is thus discovering that Morsi & Co. are not so “moderate” after all.

It is nice to see some reality creep into the “Arab Spring” narrative. But we really should stop being unrealistic about the Egyptian military. The armed forces did not step in to stop the Brotherhood while still under the command of Mubarak’s generals. Why would they step in now when they are under the command of Islamist generals chosen by the Brotherhood.


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