Facing a “dark tunnel of conflict” in Egypt: the Generals & the Brothers

The impending collision of the Morsi government with its opponents and (perhaps) the military broadly fits a cyclical pattern of Islamist collaboration with state forces observed over the previous six decades of Egyptian politics.

WJ Dorman
30 June 2013

A sign demanding president Morsi to step down on a juice stand in Cairo. Demotix/Ahmed Terek. All rights reserved.

The spectre of military intervention has returned to the foreground of Egyptian politics. On 30 June, the Tamarod (“rebel”) campaign will hold large-scale protests against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of President Mohamed Morsi, the culmination of a petition drive which has gathered over 15 million signatures, calling for its removal. Press reports and social media ‘chatter’ indicate widespread fears of violence between opposition protestors and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, as well as a return of the more generalized civil disorder witnessed during the original Mubarak overthrow.

Egyptian army units have begun to deploy to strategic points around Cairo and Egypt more generally. On Sunday 23 June, the defense minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, called for the reconciliation of government and opposition, declaring that the armed forces had a “national and moral” obligation to prevent Egypt from entering a “dark tunnel of conflict [...] or the collapse of state institutions.” Officially the military has avoided taking sides in the oncoming confrontation between Morsi and his opponents, instead proclaiming its loyalty to the Egyptian people. Some observers see its warnings as directed at both government and opposition. Others believe that the military is particularly concerned about the possibility of Muslim Brotherhood ‘militia’ attacking protestors, a ‘red line’ which would trigger army intervention. But crucially neither the military nor the interior ministry’s police seem minded, at least publicly, to defend the Morsi government to which they are nominally subordinate. Assertions by the president and his spokesman that there were no divisions with the military were met with skepticism by commentators.

The renewed salience of praetorianism in Egypt must be understood in terms the escalating polarization and deadlock following the highly divisive constitutional referendum of December 2012, seen by its opponents as Islamizing the state and political order. The armed forces had been seemingly banished from politics after August 2012. Morsi reversed the June usurpation of presidential powers by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had ruled Egypt through the protracted post-Mubarak transition, and retired many of its members. However, civilian politics since the referendum has been stalemated between the non-Islamist forces who refuse to play ‘loyal opposition’ and the Morsi government which has been unable to establish authority over Egyptian society or even consolidate control over state institutions. In this context, some opposition figures have called for military intervention to depose the Morsi government, preserving another aspect of the pre-2011 order: the officer corps as kingmaker.

Al-Sisi and colleagues are unlikely to relish a return to direct rule, but may well intervene in the face of large-scale disorder or if their institutional interests seem threatened. Ironically during the post-Mubarak transition, the military cultivated the Muslim Brotherhood — facilitating the Morsi government’s ascendance — as a means of shaping the transition to protect its political and economic privileges. Despite Morsi’s proclamations of primacy, civil-military relations are a de facto power-sharing with the ‘deep state’ in which the armed forces — and the security services as Hazem Kandil has argued — have retained a substantial degree of autonomy. The current stand-off can thus be usefully contextualized in a much broader history of collaboration and repression between the Islamist movement and Egypt’s “lame leviathan” state, which despite its pretensions to hegemony has only ever had a limited capacity to intervene in the grass-roots of Egyptian society. [1]

Out of necessity, the Egyptian state has historically co-existed with semi-autonomous social forces and locally connected power brokers — including the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups — to rule indirectly at the neighborhood or village level. This “politics of notables,” in Albert Hourani’s well-known formulation, is an exercise in mediating competing demands from above and below. Hourani himself noted the intrinsic instability of such ‘balancing’ exercises, in which the intermediary elements find it difficult to appease the centre without antagonizing the grass-roots and vice versa. Moreover such tacit bargains often have an instrumental quality and are always vulnerable to the internal contradictions of their participants. They are hence highly susceptible to betrayal. The Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with virtually every government since 1952 (and before) have gone through periodic ruptures and rapprochements; a similar dynamic is evident with respect to their more militant off-shoots such as the Islamic Group.

For example, in the pre-1952 period the royalist courtiers cultivated the Brotherhood, likely promising support for its agenda of Islamic reform, to undermine the nationalist Wafd party and gain its support for a more autocratic monarchy. However in 1948-1949, the palace and its political allies became fearful of the Brotherhood’s social base and paramilitary capabilities, for a time dissolving the organization and arresting its members.  The Muslim Brotherhood also had sometimes close relations with Nasser and the Free Officers. Their July 1952 coup was undertaken with its explicit support. While Nasser consolidated his hold on power, the Brotherhood accommodated the suppression of the ancien regime order. But equally fearing its support base, Nasser and his colleagues turned on the Brotherhood, executing and jailing its leaders in the Autumn of 1954. Yet this suppression was tempered by a measure of continued cultivation and co-option. By the end of the 1950s, the MB had taken advantage of a tacit opening by the Nasser government to reconstitute itself in various state-sanctioned fora.  However this political opening ended abruptly in the Summer of 1965 with re-arrest, trial and execution of a number of Brotherhood members on the grounds of plotting against the state, but perhaps also reflecting internal divisions within the Nasser government.

In the 1970s, President Sadat facilitated the reentry of the Islamist movement, including Brotherhood, into Egyptian public life as part of his consolidation of power against remnants of the Nasser era, particularly left-wing university students. At the very least, his government pursued a divide-and-rule strategy to prevent Islamists making common cause with its secular critics. It facilitated the emergence of Islamist student groups, their takeover of student unions and Islamization of the university environment more generally. While evidently successful in marginalizing the Egyptian left, the Sadat government’s cultivation of the Islamists eventually had an unhappy denouement. By the end of 1977 the Islamists were becoming a liability for Sadat in their opposition to his normalization of relations with Israel, and with the emergence of uncontrollable militant elements. Starting in the Spring of 1978, the Sadat government started to try to roll back the Islamist presence, ultimately setting in motion a process of confrontation culminating in his assassination in October 1981.

In its aftermath, the Mubarak government resumed Sadat’s co-optive approach. In the early 1980s, there was a tacit understanding that the militants would limit their activities to Upper Egypt. Main-stream and ‘moderate’ Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were offered the opportunity to work within the political system for the Islamization of Egyptian state and society in return for helping the Mubarak government contain (and perhaps co-opt) more militant elements.

The Brotherhood channeled its political activities through civil society bodies, such as the professional syndicates, while avoiding protests, demonstrations other extra-systemic activities. The result may have been a de facto ‘division of labour’ in Egypt’s subaltern zones in which Islamist social-welfare charities provided public services and exercised social control where the state lacked resources and ‘reach’.

But such state-Islamist collaboration was never unproblematic. In the case of the militants, it had broken down by the late 1980s — whether as the result of the Islamists being unwilling to remain in Upper Egypt or the internal dynamics of the Mubarak government leading to a more confrontational interior ministry — resulting in a series of clashes culminating in the Islamist insurgency of the early 1990s. Yet again, fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social and economic base, the Mubarak government staged a series of mass arrests and show trials of its members beginning in the mid 1990s. Yet the Brotherhood seemingly continued to play by the rules of the game, avoiding direct challenges to the Mubarak government in the 2000s and coordinating discreetly during the 2005 parliamentary elections.

During the Mubarak overthrow, Brotherhood officials (including Morsi) reportedly met with Vice President Omar Suleiman and reached a agreement by which its youth cadres would leave the Tahrir protests in return for release of senior Brotherhood figures.

Although this didn't happen, in the months following Mubarak’s removal from power, observers noted the emergence of an undeclared cooperative relationship between SCAF and Brotherhood who publicly supported to the constitutional amendments of March 2011. SCAF allowed the Brotherhood (and other Islamists) to form political parties although they had never been formally re-legalized.

For their part, the Brotherhood largely withdrew from the protest movement and had little involvement in any of the subsequent street clashes of the transition period. When not remaining silent, they in effect became public and street-level defenders of SCAF. SCAF’s cultivation of the Brotherhood and the Salafi movement were likely, in the first instance, intended to identify social forces with a grass-roots constituency through which to reestablish a degree of control over Egyptian society after the breakdown of mechanisms such as the ruling National Democratic party and withdrawal of the police.

More broadly, it sought a to create a civilian partner for a post-Mubarak political dispensation which would protect the military’s status as a ‘state-within-the-state’ with extensive commercial and property holdings. Yet there was an apparent fracturing of the military-Islamist understanding in the Autumn of 2011 as the Brotherhood rejected Deputy Prime Minister al-Selmi’s attempt to introduce supra-constitutional principles guaranteeing military autonomy into the constitution-drafting process. For its part, SCAF seemed to distance itself from the Brotherhood and by late Spring 2012, the military may have joined the security services and ancien regime elements backing former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq in the presidential elections. SCAF then delayed announcing Morsi’s victory while it bargained with the Brotherhood over the transition process and subsequently sought to usurp presidential powers in a short-lived ‘judicial coup’.

The impending collision of the Morsi government with its opponents and (perhaps) the military broadly fits a cyclical pattern of Islamist collaboration with state forces observed over the previous six decades of Egyptian politics.  A succession of authoritarian rulers have cultivated the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shoots as a means of building a support base, dividing and ruling their opponents and controlling the subaltern zones of Egyptian society. Such attempts at political incorporation by other means have usually been shorted lived, casualties of the internal contradictions of state forces and their would-be Islamist allies. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood — thanks to the Morsi government and its ruling Freedom and Justice party — is now a state actor, at centre of the polity rather than mediating with the grass-roots. Yet there may be an underlying degree of continuity with the ancien regime era. A variety of analysts have noted the Brotherhood’s apparent desire to wield power rather than reform the apparatus of governance, its tendency to behave like an opposition movement even while in government and apparent willingness to do deals with the armed forces — suggesting a reproduction of the pre-2011 status quo by other means. Hence the Morsi government’s survival depends, at least in part, on its ability to engage and manage Egyptian society on behalf of the military and ‘deep state’. The Tamarod movement threatens to demonstrate that it has lost the capacity to do so.


This article is, in part, based on a presentation to the “Islamism and the Arab Revolutions: Dynamics of Change” conference, held at Cairo University in February 2013. 


[1] The term “lame leviathan” is borrowed from Thomas Callaghy, see “The state as lame Leviathan.” The African state in transition (1987). With respect to limited Egyptian state capacity, see Alain Roussillon, “Republican Egypt Interpreted.” The Cambridge History of Egypt, vol 2 (1998).



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