Earlier this week, Egypt's Defense Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sissi sent a set of unmistakably potent messages, which put the army firmly at the heart of the Egyptian scene.
"The army is like a fire, which you should not play with it or against it," Sissi told a gathering of Egypt's top intellectuals and actors. He was making a veiled warning to Islamists who have recently underestimated the army and sneered at its commanders. He fielded questions from his guests while standing on top of a tank.
Sissi's recent statements pointed to a new social, media and psychological redeployment for the army, making it the centerpiece of the state.Abdullah Kamal
At the same gathering, the defense chief distanced the army from the country's political tensions, rebuffing calls from opponents of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood for the military to "step in" and stage a coup. "If the army has to move, this movement will not be for a short time. It may extend for 40 years," he said.
Egypt had been ruled by four presidents with a military background for six decades starting from 1952. In June last year, Mohammed Mursi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, became Egypt's first democratically elected president.
Officials from the Brotherhood did not hide their happiness at Sissi's reassuring remarks, as the group was feeling worried about increasing calls on the army to topple the Islamist regime whose popularity rates have dropped amid a dilapidated economy.
However, the jubilant Islamists seem to have lost notice of one key message in the defense chief's statements. Sissi projected an image of a self-confident commander holding the balance of the state, with a powerful army standing behind him. At one point, he threatened intervention to safeguard "the people's legitimacy". In other times, he counseled patience, prodding different political powers to come to terms among themselves to end the country's political deadlock.
Egypt has for months bogged down in a sharp dispute pitting the secular-leaning opposition against President Mursi and his Islamist allies.
Significantly, Sissi at the recent gathering ignored mentioning the Islamist president and highlighted the power of the army. The first-of-its kind gathering was held inside an army camp outside Cairo, a place that symbolically underscored the overwhelming presence of the army on the Egyptian stage despite the defense minister's insistence that the military is unwilling to make a political comeback.
The military governed Egypt in a turbulent transitional period that ran from February 2011 – following Hosni Mubarak's ouster in a popular revolt—until the army handed over power to Mursi on June 30, 2013.
In November last year, I wrote an article commenting on Mursi's sacking of the then defense minister Hussein Tantawi—the former military ruler-- whom he replaced with al-Sissi. In that piece, I described the move as a "political redeployment for the Egyptian army" that I said was poised to carry out "repositioning" to emerge as the "guardian of the state".
Sissi's recent statements pointed to a new social, media and psychological redeployment for the army, making it the centerpiece of the state. At the same time, he presented an image of an army commander abiding by law and rules of legitimacy.
The army’s tactics
In the past two weeks, the army has hosted functions to which prominent media personalities and artists were invited. Politicians—both from the ruling Islamists and the opposition—were left out, giving the impression that they are to blame for Egypt's deepening political predicament.
These occasions forged a sort of alliance between the military prowess and the "soft power" represented in Egypt's influential media, writers and entertainers.
In doing this, the army has eyed several objectives, namely:
- Reviving a public perception of the army as being an inclusive national institution at pains to remove the lingering negative legacy of the military's management of the post-Mubarak transitional period.
- Promoting links with Egypt's influential intellectuals, media and artists who are concerned about the future under Islamists' rule
- Rehabilitating Egypt's elite intellectuals, whose image has been tarnished since the anti-Mubarak revolt and miscast as being part of the hated past.
- Presenting these elite as the vanguard of the sought-after non-religious state in Egypt.
The defense minister also sent a message to the Muslim Brotherhood, who has repeatedly accused the opposition of stirring up unrest in the country and seeking to oust the democratically elected president. Sissi called on Egyptians to vote in parliamentary elections expected to be held later this year. He said that army troops would be deployed to secure the polling stations.
The implications are that political changes should be instituted through the ballot box and that everyone, including the Brotherhood and the opposition, should shoulder their own responsibility.
Moreover, he clearly stated that the army does not hamper a mega-project supported by the Brotherhood to develop the Suez Canal area, after the government accepted the demands made by the military in this sensitive region.
The message imparted by Sissi to the Brotherhood was something like this: "The arena is now clear for you to show your mettle."
The confidence and boldness exuded by Sissi this week were unlikely to be shown two months ago when the Brotherhood insinuated that top commanders of the army could be replaced.
Now the army has strongly put its house in order in a way that tolerates no meddling in its affairs. The incumbent army commanders led by Sissi have set in Egypt an unprecedented example of the top brass who are free of political shackles and give precedence to considerations of national security. Their keen interaction with the people and intellectuals builds an image for the army as the key state institution, which holds the reference terms and the overriding clout.
Abdullah Kamal – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, is now working on a book about the end of the Mubarak era under the title of “The Penultimate Pharaoh.” The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011).