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The Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Complex Relationship (Part 1/2)

Pragmatism shapes the relationship between the Egyptian army and the Brotherhood.

Current events seem to exemplify the existence of a clear opposition between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. On July 3, the military toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's president and head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, thousands of Muslim Brothers and Islamists took the streets to protest against what they called a “military coup.”

Over the summer, the army bloodily repressed these demonstrations, killing between 300 and 1,000 people and injuring thousands of them. On September 23, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood and ordered its funds and assets to be seized — a decision upheld on November 6. This ban took place more than two years after the organization’s political party, the FJP, was officially legalized in the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution.

Yet it would be misleading to conclude that the Brotherhood and the army are inherently opposed to each other. Recent events elude the fact that at several points in history, the Islamists and the military have peacefully coexisted and even sometimes collaborated. Only two years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, declared: “We will always defend the army and the army will always defend us.”

A History of Collaboration and Antagonism

An historical perspective is necessary to understand the nature of the relationship between the two organizations. Eight decades of crises, bans, assassination attempts, rapprochement, agreements and mutual assistance show how ambivalent this relationship is. The government's attitude vis-à-vis the Brotherhood has been emblematic of this fluctuation. From the advent of the Officer's Republic in 1952 until today, the military elite has alternately oscillated between strong condemnation of the movement, relative tolerance and strong collaboration.

In the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood chose violence in response to the assassination of its founder Hassan al-Banna. In 1954, a Muslim Brother attempted to kill then-President Gamal Abdul Nasser. As a result, the organization was outlawed and dissolved. Thousands of Brothers were put in jail and tortured. A bloody witch hunt ensued throughout the 1960s.

Evidence of this fierce enmity is Sayyid Qutb’s, the Brotherhood’s leader at the time, radicalization and call to take up arms against Nasser when he was in prison. Conversely, in the 1970s Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat, softened the tone. He released hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members from jail and allowed the publication of al-Dawa, the organization’s newspaper.

For its part, the Brotherhood renounced violence and became involved in parliamentary elections. From the 1980s, Hosni Mubarak perpetuated Sadat's political opening. More leaders were released from prison and the organization began to gain increasing influence in professional and student circles. In 2005, its members made an electoral breakthrough, when it became the main opposition party in parliament.

There are also many cases in history when the military elite and the Islamist organization stood side by side. In the 1930s and 1940s, they combated on the same front against the continuing British influence in Egypt.

In 1952, the Brotherhood supported the military coup of the Free Officers. More recently in 2011, in the post-revolutionary context, the Muslim Brotherhood embarked upon a “post-revolutionary honeymoon” with the army. They held common interests in stabilizing Egypt and stepping into the political breach the revolution had opened up.

Although they officially denied any alliance, facts on the ground showed a surprising connivance between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Brotherhood. Whereas the SCAF was increasingly criticized by the Egyptian population for its slow reforms, partiality and authoritative methods, the Brothers gave it their support. They did not join most of the protests against the Council and generally welcomed its statements.

For its part, the army implicitly supported the Islamists. It gave the Brotherhood a prime role in writing a new constitution by scheduling legislative elections early enough to make sure they would be the only organized and credible political group at that moment.

Competing for Political Space

The ambiguous relationship between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood reflects nothing but the structure of power in Egypt. They have both been the two most influential and powerful organizations in the country over the last eight decades. Therefore, they have always been competing for political space.

The military has sought to maintain its grip on power while the Islamist organization attempted to seize power. The former wanted politics to remain the same so its position and interests were protected. The latter wished to implement their religious ideology in the political realm.

However, the two actors have not fought on an equal footing. On the one side, the Muslim Brotherhood has enjoyed tremendous popular support. Indeed, it has been the most important organization in terms of social services, implementing hundreds of projects all across Egypt — particularly in rural areas. This charity work has been hailed especially since the public sphere was unable or unwilling to provide such services. Moreover, the Brotherhood's vision of religion – al-nizam al-islami (Islam as a system) – “has met the spiritual and emotional as well as the legal needs of the community.”

On the other side, the Egyptian army has also been and still is highly popular. Conscription concerns all males between 18 and 30 for a period from one to three years. As a result, almost every Egyptian knows a brother, father, husband or son who has been enlisted in the army.

The Egyptian Army: A “Great Family” Close to the People

Therefore, the military is considered as a “great family,” close to the people. Moreover, the military has enjoyed an exemplary reputation in terms of honesty and reliability. During the January 25 Revolution, a very popular slogan was: “The army and the people are one hand.” Whereas the police has been highly criticized and seen as profoundly corrupted and violent, the Egyptian army has conversely been considered as a model. Finally, becoming part of the military in Egypt is very prestigious and remains one of the few opportunities for social advancement.

It is not only that the army is highly popular; it is also very powerful. First, it has ultimate coercive power. Thus, the Egyptian military is able to determine the path politics will follow. Possibly, Mubarak was only ousted because the army chose the opposing camp.

Second, it is a veteran in the complex task of exercising power. Between 1952 and 2012, all Egyptian leaders were former high-ranked military officers. Political and military circles were closely interconnected and the military has developed a great capacity to appreciate and deal with any given situation. They know when they need to tighten things up or when it is better to make concessions.

Third, and most importantly, the Egyptian army wields vast economic power. It is involved in almost every sphere of the economy. It owns hotels and resorts, oil and gas companies, electricity and water services, telecommunication companies and so on. There are no available statistics but experts estimate that the military owns between 10 to 40 percent of the total Egyptian economy. The army is said to be “the first company in Egypt.”

Therefore, military officers enjoy large economic advantages. Many of them sit on the board of directors of state-owned enterprises. Retirees are often involved in the state’s economic policies. The army generates considerable profit and keeps its benefits for itself.

As a result, in the struggle for power between the Muslim Brothers and the military, the latter has a structural advantage over the former. Consequently, the army has been able to shape its relationship with the Brotherhood in compliance with its own interests.

The Army’s Political Strategy

In short, links between the Egyptian military and the Brotherhood are mostly determined by the army’s strategic interest in keeping good relations with them. They do not depend on ideological considerations or political loyalties. They are only motivated by a great sense of pragmatism. Over the last decades, the army has developed a political strategy, aiming to shield its political position and prerogatives.

This strategy has three components:

  1. The absolute priority of the army is to preserve the economic advantages and privileges it has enjoyed for over 60 years. Almost each of its choices will be determined by this objective.
  2. To make sure the army has the necessary leeway to take the decisions that will match its economic interests, it needs to ensure popular support.
  3. To protect its economic interests, the army has to ensure a stable political environment that will foster economic activity. Hence, it absolutely needs order.

The need to achieve these three objectives determines the behavior the army adopts vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood.

*[Read the final part on November 21.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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