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Middle East

Egypt opposition bets on risky alliance with military

The opponents of President Morsi have asked Egypt's military to help oust the Islamist-leaning government. But it remains unclear what the army would seek to gain from an intervention on the side of the protesters.

The call for help was impossible to oversee. "We call on the military to save Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood," wrote opponents of President Mohammed Morsi on a large protest sign. It's unclear whether or not the military actually read the protesters' call for intervention. But the generals' reaction to the mass demonstrations last Sunday came without delay.

On Monday, the army's top brass gave the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition 48 hours to resolve their differences. If the two sides prove unable to find a compromise, then the military will propose its own roadmap to solve the political crisis. In a statement read in the name of the Egyptian military, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said that the roadmap would "include all the major social groups as well as the youth, who started this wonderful revolution."

Autor: Nael Eltoukhy (DW) photo no.5 photo title: to the military, save Egypt photo description: To the military: save Egypt from Muslim brotherhood. from the demonstration of Tawfiq Okasha's lovers photo date: 30-6-2013 photo place: Cairo - Egypt Copyrights: Nael Eltoukhy

Anti-Morsi protesters have called on the military to intervene

While the statement did not elaborate on the details of the roadmap, the military did make clear that it meant business. If the demands of the Egyptian people are not fulfilled, then "we [the military] will be forced to fulfill our historical responsibility toward our land and the great Egyptian nation, and draft a roadmap in agreement with the Egyptian people."

Military displays solidarity with protesters

While the concept of a "roadmap" for the future may be ambiguous, there are many indications that the demonstrators have good reason to count on the military's support. On Sunday, army helicopters flew at low altitude over Tahrir Square, flying Egyptian national flags. Protesters and commentators alike interpreted the flyover as a gesture of solidarity.

Large swathes of Egyptian society could gain something from an intervention by the military, according to political scientist Maha Azzam, with the think tank Chatham House in London.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that they want a military takeover, although some of them do," Azzam told DW. "But that they want a military intervention that would facilitate...civil society's aims. That is the removal of President Morsi, although he has been the first - as we know - freely elected president of Egypt."

Generals' ambiguous role

The Egyptian military is subordinate to the head of state, who is currently President Morsi. But unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces also have a long secular tradition.

CAIRO, EGYPT - DECEMBER 14: Soldiers stand guard in front of the presidential palace as anti-scaf graffiti is seen on the wall on December 14, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. Opponents and supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi staged final rallies in Cairo ahead of tomorrow's referendum vote on the country's draft constitution that was rushed through parliament in an overnight session on November 29. The country's new draft constitution, passed by a constitutional assembly dominated by Islamists, will go to a referendum vote on December 15. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

During the political transition, protesters criticized the military

Under General Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the military adopted a leftist-nationalist ethos, which it maintains today. Nasser defined Egypt's political course from 1952-1970, first in several ministerial positions and then later as president. But the values adopted during Nasser's era did not stop the military from acting as the backbone of every authoritarian regime in Egypt up until the revolution in January 2011, according to Azzam with Chatham House.

And more than a few Morsi opponents remember that the military has played an ambiguous role over the past two and a half years, according to Annette Ranko, with the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.

"When the military was responsible for the transition process after the fall of Mubarak, there was a lot of opposition to the military, because there was the fear that it would not give up political power," Ranko told DW.

Many Egyptians also haven't forgotten the so-called "redline," whereby the military forbid any public criticism of the role it played during the revolution. And then there's the searing image of a young female demonstrator at Tahrir Square, who was brutally stripped and beaten by soldiers. The army's leadership later apologized for that incident.

Feeling of powerlessness

If segments of the opposition are banking on the military, it's above all because they feel powerless in comparison to President Morsi, according to Ranko. Morsi admitted in his last speech that he had only spoken with the heads of the traditional opposition parties and not with Egypt's youth, she said.

Bildunterschrift: Muslimbrueder bewachen den Eingang zur Pro-Morsi Demonstration mit selbstgebauten Schilden. (28.06.13, Pro-Mursi Demo in Nasser-City in Kairo) Copyright: DW/Matthias Sailer

Pro-Morsi demonstrators have also taken to the streets

"There are a lot of sclerotic structures, not only among the Islamists, but also among the leftist and liberal parties," Ranko said. "There simply hasn't been a platform for young people there. And out of this powerlessness, they have turned to the military as a partner."

But what motivates the military to more or less directly support Morsi's opponents? Azzam with the think tank Chatham House believes that the generals couldn't warm up to the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist political persuasion. And now the military sees the chance to slightly shift the balance of power.

"What they are saying, is that we want to have the look of a civilian government, but we are remaining very much in control of the situation," Azzam said. "This is very much what Egypt was hoping to move away from."

But according to Ranko, a return to pre-revolutionary political conditions is no longer possible in Egypt, even if the military were to impose such conditions by force.

"The military has to adapt to the changes in Egypt, whether it wants to or not," she said. "There is no alternative."

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