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On Point

Finessing Egypt's Second Spring 2013


by Austin Bay
July 2, 2013

When Egypt's Arab Spring rebellion began in late January 2011, the most critical near-term uncertainty involved the Egyptian military. Just how would the military respond? How the military promoted, thwarted and/or helped mediate the inevitable redistribution of power among individuals and factions within the country would shape the next 50 years of Egyptian history.

If the military acted with the long-term economic and political interests of the Egyptian people as its guide, the subsequent three or four decades of trial and error, adaptation and modernization -- scarred by occasional outbursts of violence and chaos -- would economically reward the Egyptian people's perseverance and historically reward Egyptian military leaders for their vision and discipline.

A history of self-serving cronyism seeded legitimate doubts that the military would act with integrity and with long-term, sacrificial vision, however.

Doubt One: Since Col. Gamel Abdel Nasser and his cadre of revolutionary officers seized power, the Egyptian military had served as the regime's security and political power base.

Doubt Two: Over time, senior officers added economic power to their security and political portfolio. Guns and political pomp are the due of general officers. But brokering cotton sales and the wholesale distribution of air conditions?

Doubt Three: Nasserite political and economic cronyism expanded under long-despised, now-deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak handpicked his senior military leaders. Ipso facto, the military they command will never support a genuine democracy.

Maybe. Now for the upside case. Egyptians, with good reason, respect their soldiers, and yes, they respect the military as the defenders of their national sovereignty. In late June the United Nations ordered an Egyptian special forces unit to bring a vicious separatist militia to heel in Congo's troubled Katanga province. The rebels now face a deadly, professional adversary. NATO airstrikes backed Libya's revolt against Moammar Gadhafi, but Egyptian military logistical, intelligence and cultural savvy was critical. The army's 1973 October War performance seals the deal. Though the Israelis counterattacked and crossed the Suez Canal, the Egyptian Army's calculated offensive ultimately led to Camp David and the return of the Sinai.

When the 2011 rebellion became a revolution, the military exhibited remarkable discipline. Perhaps it was calculated discipline -- this is the Waiting for the Upstart Fools' Inevitable Collapse Scenario, where the revolutionary government of whatever ideology falters and the military reassumes control. The interim military government did turn power over to a democratically elected government, however.

Would that secular, economic and political modernizers had won the presidency. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi eked out a victory, garnering not quite 52 percent of the vote.

Unfortunately, three types of politicians see a mandate in a narrow win, even if the margin is one vote: megalomaniacs, hard-core ideologues and confused incompetents.

Morsi does not suffer from megalomania. The jury is still out on ideologue or incompetent. In my view both tags fit. If the Inevitable Collapse Scenario were a movie, Central Casting would offer Morsi for the role as the perfect fool of a president. The man's extended string of narrowly informed, plum stupid decisions would be comedy if the stakes were not so tragic.

Consider Morsi's response to the deadly January 2013 riots in the cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia. Unnerved by the street violence, Morsi declared a state of emergency and ordered the Egyptian Army to secure riot-torn neighborhoods.

Morsi's sycophants argue he had to do something. Of course, everybody has to be somewhere. But savvy action secures successful revolutions; knee-jerk reaction is the mark of failure.

His decision un-spinnably echoed the draconian policies of the toppled Mubarak, however. For three decades Mubarak ruled Egypt by emergency decree.

Morsi's decision ignited his secular opposition. No surprise there, for in November 2012 narrow-victor Morsi had jammed a Sharia law-based constitution down the secularists' collective throats. Imposing emergency rule two months later convinced them Morsi was first and foremost committed to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda. Eventually he would subvert the revolution and establish an Islamist dictatorship.

To his surprise, Morsi discovered that tone-deaf use of military force seeded doubts among many faithful Egyptian Muslims who despise authoritarian rule and support economic modernization. How could Morsi, they asked, possibly forget that Egyptians of all economic classes, religious sects and political stripes endured Mubarak's never-ending state of emergency?

Morsi ended his state of emergency in mid-February. But the damage was done. His myopic decision shattered whatever was left of the Arab Spring united democratic front.

Morsi, Islamist ideologue and political incompetent, is no Mubarak, but he is responsible for Egypt's Second Spring 2013. Once again the burden of responsible action falls on the Egyptian military. Pulling it off will require a genius for finesse. 

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