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Egyptian military seen staging a 'soft' coup d'etat

June 22, 2012 |  5:00 am

Morsi supporters
There have been no tanks in the streets or ominous broadcasts from the generals that power has been seized and order restored in Egypt. The coup d'etat that has derailed a transition to democracy is of the "soft" variety, Middle East analysts say, waged from courts, commissions and executive bodies still stacked with loyalists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

GlobalFocusThe armed forces, in little more than a week, have seen to the disbanding of a newly elected parliament, reinstated martial law, seized budgeting and national security authority, set themselves up as drafters of a new constitution and delayed Thursday's release of results of the presidential election.

The thwarting of a new elected leadership for Egypt has already brought protesters to the capital's Tahrir Square and can be expected to accelerate the economic decline and insecurity that have gripped Egypt since the tumultuous revolution of early 2011, when the "Arab Spring" pro-democracy movement swept through the Middle East’s most populous nation.

A clearer picture of how much authority the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has seized for itself should emerge this weekend if, as the military-controlled institutions have hinted, the results of last weekend's presidential runoff are announced and a winner begins preparing to take office by the end of the month.

Whether Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi or former Air Force chief and Mubarak ally Ahmed Shafik is declared the victor, the new head of state will have little power to challenge the military-controlled vestiges of Mubarak's regime. The military hierarchy has long been the power behind the throne in Egypt, and some analysts see its recent moves as evidence that the generals intend to remain in control and marginalize the people’s choices.

"I think what we've seen is a military coup. It's softer than some coups -- we're not seeing a sudden demarche where the military comes out of the barracks and posts tanks all over the place. But it's a coup even as they are trying to be more gradual," said Thomas Henriksen, senior fellow on international political and defense issues at Stanford's Hoover Institution.  

The military posted itself at polling places and relegated the final counting to an elections commission essentially under its control, raising questions about the legitimacy of the outcome if, as some expect, Shafik is declared the winner, benefactor of suspected ballot box-stuffing by the military.

"None of this is to say that the military doesn't have allies," Henriksen observed, pointing to Egypt's Coptic Christian minority and other non-Muslim groups that fear the Brotherhood could seek to impose religious restrictions. Others worry about Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups getting a foothold in Egypt with theological allies in power, he added.

Muslim Brotherhood candidates won a majority of parliamentary seats earlier this year, and the prospect of the Islamist party also controlling the presidency was too much for the military to contemplate, said Jeffrey Martini, a RAND Corp. scholar on Middle East politics and Arab world reform.

"The Brotherhood is being confronted with this awful choice -- they can have Mohamed Morsi seated and take the oath of office and legitimate a transitional process that is off its rails, or the Brotherhood could take to the streets and try to unseat the SCAF," Martini said, pointing out that the revived martial law declaration could allow a bloody crackdown if the Islamists choose the path of unrest.

Robert Springborg, a professor of Middle East politics and economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, doesn't think Egyptians' dismay over the thwarted transfer to democracy will rise to the level of rekindled rebellion.

"The ability for the Brotherhood to orchestrate an uprising is not there. There is revolutionary fatigue," said Springborg. The Supreme Council "intended from the beginning to drag out this process, knowing full well that people would get tired of the insecurity."

The military contributed to Egyptians' growing disenchantment with the fruits of their revolution, he said, by removing the police force and allowing lawlessness to prevail that served the purpose of making some nostalgic for the order of the old autocracy.

Springborg sees signs of internal fissures within the armed forces that may one day break its ability to control and manipulate those in power. The two dozen or so generals of the Supreme Council speak and act cohesively, but some younger officers, especially those educated in the West, have come to see the military hierarchy as corrupt and failing in its mission to serve the people, he said.

The standoff over the presidency may not be the tipping point, though. With little expectation of a massive backlash against the military, it will probably remain the de facto leadership  until it decides whether to tolerate Morsi, empower Shafik, or leave the status quo of uncertainty in place for months while it rewrites the constitution.

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 --Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters chant slogans and carry posters with a picture of presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi during a protest Wednesday against delayed release of the presidential election results. Credit: Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

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