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Know Your Egyptian Generals

CAIRO -- The rules of Egyptian politics just changed. On July 1, mere hours after the end of massive protests against President Mohamed Morsy's administration, Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi delivered an ultimatum giving the vying political forces 48 hours to compromise -- or else the military would unilaterally "declare a road map" for the country's future.

The Egyptian military, of course, played a key role in forcing Hosni Mubarak from office -- but many had assumed its days of playing an overtly political role were over. In August 2012, Morsy dismissed Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the military junta that governed Egypt following Mubarak's fall. In an interview later that year with the New York Times, the president batted aside a suggestion that Tantawi had resigned voluntarily. "No, no, it is not that they 'decided' to do it," he said. "The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop."

Morsy subsequently appointed Sissi as defense minister and the new military commander. The general received advanced training at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania and attracted some criticism during the 2011 uprising when he defended the military's notorious "virginity tests" of female protesters. But needless to say, any speculation that he would be more pliant than his predecessor has just been disproved: As an unnamed advisor to Morsy said of the ultimatum, "We understand it as a military coup."

The United States is getting slammed from both sides in this episode. While protesters accuse President Barack Obama of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, those close to Morsy suspect the military received Washington's blessing for its move. "The conviction within the presidency is that [the coup] won't be able to move forward without American approval," said one advisor.

So, what are Egypt's generals really thinking? Nobody is spilling the beans right now about their plans, but many researchers have studied how the Egyptian military approaches politics in Cairo. Joshua Stacher, who wrote a book comparing regime elites in Syria and Egypt, paints a picture of the Egyptian military as a fundamentally conservative force, intent on constraining the energy on the street so it can preserve its own interests. "These are elites from a regime only partially changed, who are attempting to reconstitute the system in their own image," he wrote for FP.

Other researchers suggest that the Egyptian military is more circumspect about its ability to control Egyptian politics. In this reading, the generals were distressed by protesters' backlash against them during the post-Mubarak transitional period and are looking for a way to stay behind the scenes. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven Cook put it in a blog post today, the military's goal is "to rule, but not govern."

Whatever the generals are thinking, the military and the Brotherhood have a long history of striking temporary alliances. Ever since the days of the Egyptian monarchy, wrote national security scholar Robert Springborg in an article for FP last year, "for a brief period ruler and Brothers 'cohabitate,' but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination."

Such history, Springborg suggested, meant that the current military-Brotherhood alliance was also "inherently unstable." On that point, at least, there can be no more doubt.

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Déjà Vu: Egyptian Military Sets 48-Hour Deadline to Resolve Political Crisis

In a statement posted to its Facebook page and read aloud on Egyptian state television on Monday, Egypt's military leaders issued an ultimatum calling for a resolution to the country's political crisis within the next 48 hours. According to the statement, in the event that the government does not recognize the demands of the protesters -- which range from President Mohamed Morsy stepping down to addressing the country's pressing economic concerns -- the military will implement a plan to resolve the situation (what that plan might entail is not specified).

The statement was posted at approximately 4:30 p.m., Cairo time, which would give the protesters and government until Wednesday afternoon to reach an accord. The New York Times notes that it is unclear whether this means the military is calling on Morsy to resign, but the message has been seen by some analysts on Twitter as a threat of a coup d'état. Since the announcement was made, military helicopters flying Egyptian flags have circled Tahrir Square, drawing cheers from the activists below.

The announcement -- or warning -- carries a strong sense of déjà vu. The two weeks of protests that forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 culminated with an announcement that the president was resigning and passing power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) -- a decision that came after Mubarak appeared to lose the support of the military leadership. The country's military leaders then oversaw a year-and-a-half-long transition period, during which they were accused of trying to maintain the military's vaunted position in the management of Egypt's national affairs and were frequently criticized for human rights abuses. That transition ended a year ago with Morsy's inauguration.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, believes that the military is repositioning itself to maintain its political and economic stake in the Egyptian government. "The tone the military has struck up until this moment," he writes on his blog, "is perfectly suited for the officers' ultimate goal which is, and has been, to salvage what they can from the wreckage of the January 25 uprising and preserve their place in Egyptian society." Cook notes that the military's top officials are "shrewd political operators" and that the flag-waving overflights are a masterful way to signal solidarity with the protesters, even though the army is primarily interested in protecting its own interests.

Some of the protesters have embraced the military during this latest round of protests and have brought back a chant popular in 2011: "The people and the Army are one hand." Others, wary of the long SCAF-managed transition and the military's intentions, have received the announcement with unease. The seemingly deliberate ambiguity of today's statement raises questions about the military's exact plan -- it could be a bluff to force a compromise in the next two days, or it could be much more.

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