x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Morsi's humiliation of Egypt's army now hangs over his head

The Egyptian leader's challenge is to find three balances: between the army and the public; between his Brotherhood origins and his presidency; and between revolutionary change and the rule of law in the state.

Where is the army?

A wave of articles in major independent newspapers, before this week's media strike, have suggested that Egypt's military leaders are both disappointed and angered by the political tumult caused by President Mohammed Morsi's recent decisions.

Then, on Tuesday, Mr Morsi had to slip out the back door of the presidential palace as a large, angry crowd protested out front.

Even before that drama, the army was widely rumoured to be close to intervention. There have been suggestions that the public will eventually call upon the army to resolve Egypt's crises.

Last June, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces relinquished certain powers after Mr Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, was elected president. In August, Mr Morsi seemed to take even more powers from the military as Scaf's chief, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and his deputy Gen Sami Anan stepped down.

Since then the armed forces have kept a low profile - so far.

Annual economic growth has fallen from 5 per cent to barely 1 per cent. If growth cannot be restarted, and the country's diseased economic structure reformed, social explosions become likely. A "revolution of the hungry" could exceed the control capacity of the security apparatus headed by the president. At that point, the army could intervene.

Economic protests are not the only route to military intervention. Islamists are well-organised but politically immature, while other political forces are fragmented. Some believe that liberal parties could ask the army to be a bulwark against theocracy.

This notion became much more plausible when Mr Morsi granted himself sweeping powers, sidelining the judiciary and exempting the constitutional assembly, the upper house of parliament and his own decisions from court appeals.

Then protesters flooded Cairo's Tahrir Square in response to a draft constitution, approved by an Islamist-dominated assembly in a 16-hour session boycotted by liberals, secularists and Christians.

The protesters vowed to commence civil disobedience if Mr Morsi doesn't rescind his decrees. Then the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-Islamist Salafis summoned their adherents to rallies in support of the president. This week clashes have been increasingly violent. And so the army's quiet neutrality could come to an end.

This is Mr Morsi's toughest domestic crisis. It is now possible to imagine him as the new Hosni Mubarak, forced to step down.

When Mr Morsi forced the retirement of Gen Tantawi last August, some hailed the move as taming the army's economic and political influence. But others saw a carefully brokered deal providing an escape from prosecution for the leading generals.

In any case, the army did not suffer greatly by shedding its ageing leaders, who lacked the political skills demanded by fast-moving events. Under them, the military establishment had been subjected to fierce criticism from all parties. The new leaders are keen on staying away from the spotlight.

On the other hand, the army maintains the privileges it assumed during the decades before the revolution: a secret budget and a whole range of commercial and financial activities, all without parliamentary oversight. The status of the armed forces as a state within the state would continue under the draft constitution.

But recent events indicate that the army's public image as a strong entity is in jeopardy. If the alleged deal did indeed take place, Mr Morsi's subsequent actions may abrogate it.

After the August move, Mr Morsi reiterated that no one was immune from justice. On October 2, something unprecedented happened: the general prosecutor announced that Gen Anan would be investigated for corruption.

There have been other signals of change. This year for the first time, the ministry of youth, headed by a Brotherhood member, organised the 1973 October War commemoration ceremony; customarily the army has had this task.

The displaced officers were not invited, but Tarek Al Zomor, an Islamic fundamentalist involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat at a similar event in 1981, was present.

The humiliation of the military increased after Mr Morsi tried, and failed, to dismiss the general prosecutor the first time. That exceeded presidential authority - although Mr Morsi's recent decree has apparently dismissed the man.

For other officers, the two former top leaders have become symbols of defeat; their downfall symbolises the threat to the military's heritage of power and independence.

Mr Morsi's greatest challenge is to find three balances: between the army and the public; between his Brotherhood origins and his presidency of Egypt; and between revolutionary change and the rule of law in the state.

Lacking charisma, experience, and widespread support, he is unlikely to be able to strike those balances. He may fail at all three, and failure in any one could bring the army back to centre stage.

Ahmed Nawar is an Egyptian writer and contributor to Al Monitor

On Twitter: @a_nawar