With Egypt spiralling ever more wildly into anarchy in the wake of last month’s bold Islamist coup by President Mohammed Morsi, the army has re-emerged from its barracks.
It did so at the request of the president after his palace was surrounded by anti-Muslim Brotherhood activists, who were confronted by the Brotherhood’s own club-wielding storm troopers. In the absence of a credible or trustworthy police force, calling in the elite Republican Guard was Mr Morsi’s only option.
The latter has been lumbered with securing the country’s government institutions and main thoroughfares in the run-up to this weekend’s referendum on a new Islamist-leaning constitution.
The military establishment essentially ran the country from 1952 until Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year, then for a transitional period before parliamentary elections were held.
The re-emergence of tanks on the streets has led some commentators to suggest that a military coup could be imminent. However, the still hugely popular generals have stated repeatedly that they have no interest in intervening directly in the political process. A pact between the Brotherhood and the military, secretly thrashed out following the revolution, is holding firm.
The new Brotherhood-written constitution gives parliament even less oversight over the powerful military’s budget and its role in shaping the country’s foreign policy than the one that it will replace.
The military elite controls at least 30 per cent of the country’s economy. Living the high life in their officers’ clubs, and the recipients of $1.4 bn in US military aid annually, the generals do not care if Egypt’s once pluralistic society increasingly resembles that of Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, like the Brotherhood, they are eager to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, and have no appetite for war with Israel. Not only would that lose them the US aid; it would also, in a matter of hours, lose them almost the entire Egyptian army itself. Poorly trained, ill-equipped and cursed by rampant nepotism, it would be no match for the IDF.
A military coup, more to the point, would provoke a mass uprising by the Brotherhood’s supporters and its Salafist allies, who number in the tens of millions.
So the generals will continue to beat up the secular, liberal activists, who have no constituency to speak of inside the country — and who, ironically, were at the forefront of the massive protests last year pressuring the army to rescind its powers so that democracy could take its course.