Egypt's power crisis: Army's still the final arbiter

July 2, 2013 at 2:27 PM
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CAIRO, July 2 (UPI) -- President Mohamed Morsi has rejected an army ultimatum he and his political rivals resolve a violent power struggle or face military intervention by Wednesday.

But the bottom line is, 2 1/2 years after longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted, the country's future still lies in the hands of the army because of growing friction between the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood who took over and the secular liberals and Christians who oppose them.

There are some fears of a coup by the 310,000-strong army. But most observers believe that's not on the cards -- for the moment anyway -- if only because the generals don't want to find themselves stuck with the impossible task of trying to resolve the crisis and maintain order amid such stark political divisions.

"Obviously we feel this is a military coup," one of Morsi's aides told The Guardian newspaper of London. "But the conviction within the presidency is that the coup won't be able to move forward without American approval."

And that's likely to be the case, for the time being at least.

Egypt's military, largely equipped with U.S. weapons systems, is dependent on U.S. military aid of $1.3 billion a year, its reward for a U.S.-brokered landmark peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

"Egypt's geopolitical relevance will endure for quite some time, even if the country ceases to be a confident leader of the Sunni Arab world," observed the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor.

"The Suez Canal is, and will remain, a vital path for global shipping, and Egypt's proximity to the Gaza Strip, as well as the long-standing cease-fire with Israel, will influence Washington to maintain links with the Egyptian military, if not the government in Cairo.

"The Egyptian military is the primary guarantor of the security of both the Suez Canal and Egypt's border with Israel," Stratfor noted.

"As long as the military maintains its position as the strongest pillar within the Egyptian state, the United States is unlikely to interfere with Egyptian affairs."

Some fear a worse scenario than a coup. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister and a close friend of Mubarak, says the situation in Egypt "has reached the point of no-return -- it's the beginning of a civil war."

A military coup or a civil war could both jeopardize the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. But the military's actions also hearkened back to the cataclysmic consequences of Algeria's generals who canceled a parliamentary election that Islamists were set to win in December 1991.

That ignited a ferocious decade-long civil war that produced jihadist militants still causing mayhem today.

The specter of the Algerian slaughter may not be entirely apt, since the Egyptian Brotherhood won its election in 2012. But they may now see that being taken away.

If Gen. Abel-Fattah al-Sisi, who Morsi named defense minister and commander in chief of the Egyptian armed forces and who issued the 48-hour ultimatum Monday, does decide to take power, history would have come full circle for Egypt.

On July 23, 1952, King Farouk I, a corrupt and profligate ruler, was overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Mohammed Naguib and the reform-minded Free Officers, quietly backed by the United States and the Soviet Union. But the real power was a young colonel, Abdel Gamal Nasser, who in February 1954 seized control, the first of a string of military dictators that ended with Mubarak, a former air force commander, Feb. 11, 2011.

Even after Mubarak, a military junta ran the country until Morsi's election as president -- by a slender majority -- in June 2012.

Now, with Egyptians baying for Morsi's removal -- the army claims 14 million people took to the streets Sunday calling for him to go -- whoever runs Egypt will be riding a tiger.

The army, despite its reluctance to intervene, is being forced to act as a referee to avert a bloodbath in the streets. That can't last for long.

"Egypt's political polarization means that whoever leads the country in the next stage will face significant opposition from powerful political and institutional forces," observed Oxford Analytica.

"This will further reduce the appetite of the country's leadership to push through tough economic reforms necessary to win back the confidence of foreign investors, and to stave off a deeper economic crisis."

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