Tired of the Brotherhood, Egyptians Want the Military Back—but Only Temporarily

Meanwhile, the country's armed forces are busy building a discount shopping mall in order to curry favor with citizens.
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Military personnel take over security amid unrest in Port Said, Egypt, on March 10, 2013. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

During a recent trip I took to Egypt, non-Islamists openly admitted that their increasingly violent protests against the government of President Mohammed Morsi, including a string of arsons targeting Muslim Brotherhood headquarters nationwide, are intended to force the military to reclaim control. "There will be bloody action in the street, and the army will come," Heba, an Alexandria-based leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told me. "I don't want this, but the people will be happy."

This weekend's anti-Christian violence in Egypt, which left six people dead, has amplified calls within the country for the Egyptian military to reclaim power. Those calls aren't new. Ever since Morsi's November 22 constitutional declaration, through which the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated leader declared virtually unchecked executive authority, non-Islamist activists have demanded the end of the Brotherhood's rule. Public support for a new military takeover then grew tremendously after December 5, when the Brotherhood used organized violence against protesters outside the presidential palace. According to one poll, 82 percent of Egyptians now want the military back in power.

"The military has a good place here," he said. "[It] is selling food at half-price. ... People appreciate the army."

None of the non-Islamists I interviewed -- most of whom were demonstrating against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces only nine months earlier - viewed a military takeover as ideal. But they seemed oddly confident that a second military junta would be short-lived and benevolent. "We just want the military to protect us during the intermediate period, not rule," said Islam, a member of the revolutionary Suez Youth Union, who later admitted to staging a provocation that he and his colleagues used as a pretext for burning a local Brotherhood office.

Yet despite this pro-military mood swing, the generals are staying away from direct political involvement for the time being. Rather than ruling, the military is focusing squarely on managing its narrow, mostly economic interests. In some cases, it is even using its vast resources to boost its image while the Brotherhood's falters. This will help the military justify its return to power if Egypt's current political chaos threatens its assets.

Even as violence has become a constant feature of Egyptian politics, with clash-inducing protests destabilizing sections of major cities, the Egyptian military has largely stayed to the sidelines. In the three major Suez Canal cities over which the military technically assumed control in late January, military police are barely visible on the streets, and military personnel largely keep to protecting state assets, such as the canal itself. And despite occasional military statements warning that its "patience" with the Brotherhood is wearing thin, a top military leader told me that the military isn't eager to run the country. It's trained to fight wars and protect borders, he said, not to police cities or operate government services.

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The Egyptian military, however, hasn't fought a major war since 1973, and its meager performance preventing weapons from being smuggled into Gaza suggests that its border-protection skills leave much to be desired. Instead, it has spent the past four decades building a vast financial empire, including extensive land-holdings and control of major industries, which is believed to comprise between 15 and 40 percent of Egypt's economy. And it's expanding those assets through the establishment of new development projects that seem geared toward improving its public standing.

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Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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