When Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s Defense Minister and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, announced that the army had removed Mohamed Mursi from office the crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated the army’s decision to side with the people of Egypt.
At the time Sisi made it clear that the army was not going to “hold the reins of power.” Such a stance makes perfect sense for Sisi and the military—Sisi doubtless wants to avoid the risks of damaging both his own reputation and that of the army’s, risks that come with running day to day affairs in Egypt. Of equal importance is ensuring the continuation of the USD 1.3 billion of American aid it receives every year, which depends on the army not taking over from a democratically-elected government. On his visit to Cairo this week, William Burns, deputy US Secretary of State, underscored US support for a transition that leads to “an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government.”
The army also has urgent military problems to address; the instability in Libya has made the border with Egypt more porous than ever, and the army is now faced with the almost impossible task of preventing the increased passage of weaponry and drugs into Egypt from Libya. In addition to this, security in Sinai has almost collapsed. Attacks on civilians, police and the armed forces by armed Islamists have led to a steep decline of the tourism revenues on which Egypt relies so heavily, and attacks on gas pipelines and the flow of weapons back into Egypt from Gaza are major concerns for the army. Sisi will want to focus all his efforts on improving security in the region to prevent a buildup of unregistered weapons in the country and to encourage tourists to return to Egypt.
However, the army may have set a dangerous precedent. In removing Mursi, even with the overwhelming support of the public, they have shown that they still hold the trump card in Egyptian politics; they are the most powerful organization in the country and are certainly the biggest hitter. Egypt has become a country with no civilian arbiter for feuds between warring internal parties, and there is now a risk that people will instinctively look to the army to solve problems in civilian politics as they arise.
Moreover any civilian government will only be able to govern with the support of the public for the constitution as well as its policies. Should the public turn on a new government the army will be forced to choose again between supporting a democratic government and risking the ire of the public, or supporting the public despite demands on its resources elsewhere. The army may find it has already set a course that it cannot change, as many Egyptians will feel it is now the duty of the army to remove unpopular civilian governments and form an interim government. Despite Sisi’s stated wishes, the army may not be able to avoid a prominent role in Egypt’s politics in the future.