Insight: Egypt's army tiptoes through democracy's minefield

Thu Feb 28, 2013 5:34am EST
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By Marwa Awad and Alexander Dziadosz

CAIRO (Reuters) - As cities along the Suez Canal erupted in violence in late January, the leader of Egypt's armed forces feared for the future of the fledgling democracy. General Abdel Fattah Sisi told the elected president, Mohamed Mursi, that the situation was critical, according to Egyptian security sources familiar with the events.

"The military leadership advised the president that national security was threatened following the chaos and vandalism that befell the cities of Suez and Port Said," a security source with links to the military told Reuters.

The two men discussed ways to contain the unrest along the Canal, which is vital to Egypt and global trade, agreeing the army could not stand by and let the turmoil spread. Early on Saturday January 26 troops deployed in the riot-torn cities; in Suez armored vehicles arrived to protect government buildings. Mursi announced a night-time curfew in the towns.

It was a telling moment in Egypt's struggle to establish a real democracy. When popular uprisings overthrew the former regime of Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the army, which had played a central role in the state for decades, determined to stand back as political parties vied for power. Many analysts believe that after Mursi was elected in June 2012, he and the military came to an understanding: the new Islamist government would not interfere in the army's interests, nor seek to change its long-standing vision of national security, while the military would give qualified support to Mursi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood.

But that deal has limits, as Egyptians are discovering. The army felt compelled to intervene to quell the January riots, according to security sources, though they were at pains to say it did not do so unilaterally. "The president and the national defense council made the decision to impose the state of emergency and a curfew until the situation stabilizes," said the security source with links to the military.

Security and political sources told Reuters that Sisi, the defense minister, also privately urged political leaders to set aside their differences in the face of a social and financial crisis.

Though the armed forces say they want to remain neutral, they believe they cannot ignore the situation on the streets.

"We are not political, we don't want to participate in the political situation because we suffered a lot because of this in the last six months," Major General Sedki Sobhi, the army chief of staff, told Reuters at an industry event in Abu Dhabi. "But sometimes we can help in this problem, we can play this role if the situation became more complicated."   Continued...

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi (R) meets with Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah Sisi in Cairo in this August 22, 2012 file picture. To match Insight EGYPT-ARMY/ REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout/Files