There is, as yet, no curfew in Egypt. There are, as yet, no tanks in the streets. (The armored personnel carriers that move Egyptian troops around are to a main battle tank what a Mini is to a Mack truck.)
There are few if any checkpoints with soldiers stopping civilians, demanding their papers, interrogating them about who they are, where they are coming from, and where they are going. In short, there is not yet the draconian imposition of order that goes by the name martial law. But if the kind of violence we saw in Egypt on Friday night continues and grows worse, the Egyptian military’s high command may say it sees no alternative.
It will act with a great show of reluctance. As with Wednesday’s coup to remove the country’s first legitimately elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the military will let events lay the groundwork for its action. It will say it is just responding to forces it actually helped set in motion. And soon, in fact, it may have little choice: Morsi’s core supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood say they are determined to engage in a struggle they keep calling a matter of life and death—or, as they like to put it, “martyrdom”—even though they claim they want their demonstrations to remain peaceful.
“There are two options,” says Gehad El-Haddad, a senior official and spokesman for the brotherhood, tells The Daily Beast. “We reverse the coup, we reinstate the president, and then he leads the dialogue and discussion of the road maps ahead. Or we die trying.”
The activists who worked so hard to oust Morsi—and to enlist the help of the military high command to do it—are now growing wary of the Army’s intentions. The bloody street battles last night around Tahrir Square, the epicenter of their revolt, killed at least 17 people, and the Army’s performance as peacekeeper was strangely uneven.
There are two bridges that lead across the Nile to Tahrir. One, called the Qasr al-Nile bridge, runs past the high-rise Semiramis Hotel directly into the square. The Army sealed that off with a solid wall of troops and personnel carriers.
But it left the 6th October Bridge, a little farther north, open for thousands of Morsi supporters to march across. The bloodshed began at the end of the bridge amid a tangle of flyovers near the Egyptian Museum. For hours no troops were to be seen, until, finally, late at night, they moved in to separate the combatants.
Arguably, the military hesitated because 6th October carries a much heavier load of traffic through the city than the other bridges do. But few of the people who were on the scene, or who followed the action, are convinced that was the high command’s main priority.
“The people pushed the [pro-Morsi forces] back, not the military,” an impassioned Egyptian in a downtown café told The Daily Beast on Saturday afternoon. The SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, “is concerned with the global opinion of what’s going on. They want things to get ugly for a bit, so when they take control, it looks better. The clashes will continue.”
The French call this sort of strategy the politique du pire, a policy intended to make a bad situation worse until the public begs you to fix it. And it’s possible that the high command, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, really is so cynical. But that presumes that the military really wants to take control for its own ends—that, at the end of the day, it really does want to govern—and that is far from certain.
The officers of the Egyptian Army live in a world apart from the rest of their countrymen. They make their homes in their own special communities behind high-walled compounds scattered around Cairo and the rest of Egypt. They have their own schools, they go to their own clubs, and they run their own very profitable industries.
In Egypt, a country where family ties almost always trump civic responsibilities and nepotism is rampant, the military was for decades just about the only government organization that could be called a meritocracy. American academics and officials talked of it in the 1950s, even under the Soviet-allied military dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser, as the country’s great “modernizing institution.” If the military could just get on the right track toward a positive, Western-oriented vision of Egyptian society, conventional wisdom held that the rest of the country would follow. Democracy would be a swell idea sometime later.
The humbling foolishness of Nasser’s disastrous war with Israel in 1967, the imperiousness of Anwar Sadat, and the three decades of torpor under Hosni Mubarak, all of them military men, did much to discredit that narrative about a “modernizing” vision. The previous geriatric SCAF that ousted Mubarak after huge protests in February 2011 made a mess of things too.
But many serving officers still believe that they and their institution, more than any politician or, for that matter, any constitution, are the bedrock of the state and the guardian of its well-being. If they can play that role in the background, they can keep their hands and their image clean. If they have to appoint one from their own ranks to rule, they can only compromise their prestige.
So the senior commanders may hope sincerely that with their backing the new civilian president, Adly Mansour, can organize a credible government and a more elastic and inclusive constitution than the one hammered together by Morsi and the brotherhood. If Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei is appointed prime minister, so much the better.
Retired Gen. Sami Seif Elyazal, whose analysis of the Army’s actions in the unfolding situation has generally been accurate, tells The Daily Beast that it’s unlikely the high command will invoke martial law unless the situation gets completely out of hand. He says the generals consider the violence we have seen so far to be manageable. “They want to just go ahead by the normal laws,” he says, “unless things on the ground are really getting ugly and there is no other solution.”
Perhaps, but it is hard not to be reminded of the politique du pire in other societies that underwent prolonged upheaval. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte took power when, after several years of revolution, successive civilian regimes proved powerless to organize the country. His coup, in the words of one British scholar, was “a shabby compound of brute force and imposture,” but “was nevertheless condoned, nay applauded, by the French nation. Weary of revolution, men sought no more than to be wisely and firmly governed.”
Today, many Egyptians are seeking much the same thing.
—With Sophia Jones in Cairo.