Editor’s note: Steven Sotloff is a Yemen-based Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is currently reporting from Cairo.
Ever since protests broke out in Egypt on Jan. 25 calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, much speculation has focused on two groups: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both have largely taken the same posture – staying aloof from the protests. But while they have embraced the same position, the two have done so for different reasons.
The Muslim Brotherhood is considered one of the most organized movements in Egypt. Though outlawed, it has always been able to work in the shadows of society. From running clinics and social welfare networks to leading mosques, the group has a strong presence throughout the country. In the 2005 elections, its candidates won 88 seats running as independents because the regime refuses to allow it to form a political party.
Analysts here are divided about the Brotherhood’s role in the protests. Some believe the early protests caught the group offguard and it was never able to formulate a concrete plan on how to react. Others believe that the organization realized the potential the protests had to bring down the regime and chose to remain on the sidelines, allowing others to do its dirty work, thus not tainting it with the stigma that it is destabilizing the country.
Such views contrast, however, with opinions on the Egyptian street. In a society that looks to find a conspiracy behind every act, many citizens here believe the group is carefully orchestrating the protests to try to bring down a regime that harasses it at every turn.
One former Western ambassador told me that the Brotherhood is the best positioned opposition group today because it can play a two-track game. First, it can negotiate with the regime on a political level in order to gain the concessions it wants from government. Chief among them is the abolishment of article 5 in the constitution, which bans a party “within any religious frame of reference.” This clause prevents the Muslim Brotherhood from functioning as a political party. Then if such concessions are not forthcoming, the group can send its supporters into the streets to fuel protests in order to pressure the regime into doing so.
The army’s role in the protests is much easier to gauge. Though called in early in the protests to restore order and intimidate anti-regime protesters, it refused to clash with them as the riot police had. The latter are a detested bunch who are insensitive to public opinion.
Analysts say the military has remained a neutral observer on the sidelines. Respected by Egyptians as the guarantor of their state, officers have chosen not to take sides in the clashes between pro-regime supporters and the anti-Mubarak opposition. Doing so would severely compromise their popularity in society and jeopardize their long-term interests. The army also runs a vast network of industries whose future would be imperiled if it backs the wrong side or runs afoul of citizens.
Though the army has kept its external cohesion, internal debates are nevertheless taking place. Throughout the crisis, the senior officer corps has remained loyal to Mubarak. Each general is handpicked by the president, ensuring absolute fidelity to him. Some of these promotions are not based on merit but rather on one’s devotedness to Mubarak. The best example of this is Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Perceived by many as a dull man, he has become one of the most powerful men in the country, based solely on his loyalty to Mubarak.
Mubarak’s early concessions were made to the military, not to the protesters in Liberation Square. He first named a new government, promoting Transportation Minister Ahmad Shafiq to prime minister. Shafiq was commander of the air force, the same position Mubarak held 40 years ago. The president also elevated Tantawi to deputy prime minister. Mubarak’s next ploy to curry favor with the army was to name Minister Without Portfolio Omar Suleiman to be his vice president. These moves hinted that Mubarak was paving the way for the security establishment to continue its hold on the country. As a result, the senior leadership has backed Mubarak and not sought to push him out of power.
The junior officer corps does not have the same attitude toward the president, however. In contrast to their superiors who hobnob with the elite in society, the junior officers are more in tune with the feelings of the Egyptian street, which is frustrated with the regime. And because their promotions have been based on merit rather than fidelity to Mubarak, they are more inclined to seek stability rather than maintaining an aging authoritarian figure in power whose demise would not adversely affect their position either in society or within the armed forces.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood and the army appear to outside observers to be standing idly by, they have in fact made calculated decisions. As a result of their calculations, what looks to the West as paralysis is likely a shrewdly considered strategy.
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