As even keen observers of the Arab Spring will have noticed, the most important and powerful institution in Egypt is undoubtedly the military, headed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They have always been at the centre of the story. From February 11 the story was how their support was decisive in helping the revolution topple Hosni Mubarak and his immediate circle. The story now is how their opposition has since been decisive in stopping it there.

Almost a year after the revolution began, key demands such as the end of the emergency law, freedom of the press, and a raising of the minimum wage, remain unmet. What’s more, the army’s repeated and increasingly deadly attacks on protesters and its insistence on holding political prisoners, have left it, in the eyes of a growing number of Egyptians and international observers, as no more moral or less brutal than Mubarak. Indeed the army’s plummet from unassailable popularity to widespread disrepute in the space of just one year has been a demonstration of political ineptitude for which no comparison immediately jumps to mind.

It is possible that the 19 generals running the country did initially harbour ambitions of ruling unrivalled, following the ouster of Mubarak. Along with the president (himself once a military man) had gone the civilian cabal that had sprung up around his son. This network had begun to threaten their ultimate grip on internal power and their role as interlocutors and gatekeepers when dealing with outside powers.

With these competitors removed, and the cheers of the people ringing in their ears, it might have seemed possible then for them to re-create the situation immediately following the 1952 “free officers revolution” (in reality a military coup, if one that garnered general tacit support) when the military institution had direct and unalloyed control. The Egypt of 2011, it turned out, was not the Egypt of 1952, and they had not a Gamal Abdel Nasser among them. It seems clear by now that, perhaps even aware on some level of their own incompetence, they are adjusting to the idea of sharing the reins of power.

In the final months of last year, a source with good insight into the Egyptian military said that from the army’s point of view “the revolution is over” and that politics now is centred on cutting a power sharing deal between “the Muslim brotherhood, the military and the United States”. We can speculate, based on the priorities we know each of these institutions has, what such a power deal would look like. America would retain a decisive voice on foreign policy, thereby preventing Egypt from taking its natural role as  leader of the Arab world — a move that would threaten America’s control over the region’s oil supplies and Israel’s ability to act without regional consequences.

This submission would be bought with continued generous aid to the military ($1.3 billion per year since 1987). The military, while acting as America’s guarantor, would retain control of the economy, in which, it as an institution, and its higher ranks as individuals, have substantial interests. It would also retain a decisive power in issues of law and order, security, as well as the ability to intervene in the public sphere when it felt its interests were at stake. The brotherhood — through their political wing the Freedom and Justice Party, would hold sway on issues of social policy, betting on their their position as a compromise between the hard-line Islamists of the Salafist movement, and the Western-styled seculars to maintain popular support.

Complicating this plan is the question of each institution’s internal cohesion; the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing has shown signs of unrest, the army has seen a slow trickle of politically motivated desertions, and moves have been made in Congress to tie US aid to democratisation.

Leaving this question aside, there is no certainty that the pact between these parties would be stable. Down this road could await a scenario such as the deadly vortex of Pakistan, where Islamists, the military and the US embassy are also the main players.

Leaving both these questions aside, the plan still does not look a winner, as it leaves out the reclaimed agency of the Egyptian people.  Indeed less than a week after this smug assessment was transmitted, the streets around Tahrir were full again, after an attack on peaceful protesters triggered another massive response.

It is important not to simplify the revolution to the removal of Mubarak, followed by election results delivering an “Islamist majority”, as if the only or most pressing issues facing Egypt were the name of the president, the headscarf and alcohol. The people of Egypt have demanded and expect a fundamental shift in the relationship between the state and the citizen, and substantial improvement to their material well-being.  Identity politics will not be enough to distract them from the multiple crises that currently beset them. If the brotherhood cannot deliver on these expectations, their support could collapse in much the same manner as the military’s already has.

This means that in the longer term, whatever promises are made behind closed doors, the institutional imperatives of the military and the parliament will inevitably collide. This will be doubly the case regarding the president, when one is elected. A likely flashpoint is the military budget, which at present is completely free from civilian oversight, but there are many other points of possible friction. If the brotherhood is seen as shying from a fight at the expense of the Egyptian people, they will pay dearly for it. This might mean a collapse in their support before the next election, or things could happen faster than that — with the politics of the street and the workplace overtaking formal structures of government, setting the agenda and forcing them to respond.

This could happen even before the parliament sits. The coming Jan 25 anniversary may well mark the beginning of a phase like this. The SCAF’s plans to hold a formal ceremony in Tahrir Square — where soldiers under their command have, beaten, arrested and killed demonstrators — celebrating the revolution, and their role in it could be a recipe for confrontation. If this day passes without incident, it is only one of the next 365, any one of which could see a tipping point, where the collective demand of a long suffering people for “bread, freedom and social justice” once more asserts itself as the driving force of a long history that is far from over.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey