In the course of war, the military could resort to a tactic known as "repositioning" or "redeployment". The Egyptian army is now engaged in a political redeployment, a key feature of which is keeping a distance from the presidency. At the same time, the military establishment is projecting itself in a new light as being above all sides to the current political struggle.
Days ago, the army harshly reacted to a rumor that President Mohammed Mursi has sacked Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. The media carried a statement attributed to unnamed military sources implicitly warning that such a move would amount to a "political suicide" for the presidency.
Hours later, Mursi sent a note of thanks to the army for its role in securing an Islamic summit held in Cairo. His gesture came 10 days after the summit was held and attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the target of two attempts to hit him with shoes by protesters. The presidential thanks reflected a submissive reaction to th army's threat.
In August last year, the army suffered an almost surprise, double blow from Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood. In October, the army suffered another blow also from the Brotherhood. But the army, who is practically engaged in the political struggle, has been scoring points in its favor since November. And the military is unlikely to lose its ground.
Mursi fired the then defense minister Hussein Tantawi and the army chief of staff Sami Anan in August shortly after he revoked a temporary constitution that had granted the military powers superseding the president's. Weeks later, Mursi excluded the two ex-generals from attending a military ceremony, inviting instead assassins of late president Anwar Sadat who led Egypt to a 1973 victory over Israel.
With this Brotherhood's headway, Mursi had to retreat after learning that the military was fretting over leaked media reports that Tantawi and Anan could be probed. Afterwards, Mursi found himself in a dilemma, which made him turn to the army for help, after he issued a sharply disputed decree expanding his powers. While being scathingly criticized by the opposition over the decree, Mursi and his group had their sights set on the army to find out how the military would react and which side it would take. The army didn't make an explicit statement.
Egypt's simmering political crisis remained a domestic affair with regional implications until Gen. al-Sissi captured international headlines by warning that political disputes could lead to the collapse of the state. Numerically, no statement made by President Mursi generated as many reports and comments in the world media as al-Sissi's warning did. The defense minister's statement placed the army above all sides and implied that the president is one of the parties who put the state's existence at stake.
Obviously, this perception about the army's standing has its background. In December when the political crisis deepened over Mursi's November 22 decree rejected by the opposition, the army invited all political factions, including the president, to lunch in a military building with the aim of defusing tensions.
Mursi initially agreed, seeing the invitation as a way out of the dilemma while mass protests were held outside the presidential palace denouncing his measures. The opposition said it would attend. Suddenly the invitation was cancelled. Military sources said the president was behind the cancellation.
In one way or another, the Brotherhood concluded that all political factions would show up for the function sponsored by the army while most of these factions rejected a call for dialogue made by the president. The opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei touched a raw nerve by saying he will accept any political dialogue attended by the military, thus raising the Brotherhood's fears. Sources inside the group said they are opposed to the army's involvement anew in politics.
Army in control
In practice, the army has not shunned politics. Its political presence is growing day after day, albeit indirectly. On different occasions, media commentators and ordinary people have called for the army to step in, with some even demanding it to stage a coup and topple the regime.
The army's communiqués are eagerly followed by both supporters and opponents of the military's engagement in politics. The army continues to wield high credibility among vast categories of Egyptians. Other categories, though limited, believe a high-profile political role by the army will resolve the conflict in its favor.
The army's scuttled bid to bring together disputing political forces was not a mere invitation for lunch. The army insists to act as an umbrella for all Egyptians. Gen. al-Sissi's warning over the possible collapse of the state came to reinforce this message. In one way or another, his statement has given the army the role of gauging the state's stability and the right to denounce all political sides, including the president, without discrimination.
This message was driven home on other occasions. While officials in the Brotherhood were promoting investment schemes in Sinai and a development project known as the Suez Canal Corridor, the defense minister decreed that the army has the final say on economic projects in the area based on national security considerations. In other words, the army, not the government or the president, is the real decision-maker.
Weeks later, the army crippled a large number of illegally built tunnels between the Egyptian border town of Rafah and the Palestinian Gaza. The army flooded several of these tunnels used in smuggling. The message sent to Egypt's Brotherhood and the Gaza's Hamas rulers is that the army, not the president, has the final say on this issue.
As I mentioned in my article "Egypt's Conflict – a Four-Sided Triangle", published in March last year, since 1954 relations between the army, Islamists and liberals have been like a triangle – two sides ally between themselves against the third provided that one of the two allies is the powerful army.
In 2011, the Brotherhood broke the rule and allied with liberals against the regime, who had a military background. The army changed the tactics and joined the two other sides as Mubarak was forced to step down. By the fourth side, I meant the external factor, which was once the Soviet Union and has been replaced by the U.S. since 1974.
The army is reshaping this relationship and keeping a close eye on the situation from outside the triangle. Technically, the triangle can never be two-sided. Liberal powers hope to somewhat ally with the army to rout Islamists, mainly the Brotherhood.
However, the army, pushing the Brotherhood-led presidency to kowtow to it, is willing to re-enter the triangle-like relationship only on its terms. The military is keen to avoid being criticized by any political side in Egypt or the U.S..
The Egyptian army's latest repositioning, contrary to many analysts' hopes, will not lead to a situation like that of Turkey's military. Nor will it revive the military rule that dominated Egypt for six decades since 1952.The army is likely to emerge as a guardian of the state, who monitors the political players' performances. This is a new equation being formulated.
Abdullah Kamal (@abkamal) – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)