What’s Arabic for ‘Reichstag Fire’?

August 17, 2012

The signs were there for those who cared to see them.

Shortly after the August 5th attack on an Egyptian army base in the Sinai, in which more than a dozen Egyptian soldiers were killed by jihadists, who seized two armored personnel carriers and attempted  to breach the Israeli border, Egyptian President (and Muslim Brother) Mohammad Morsi responded by sacking the Egyptian intelligence chief, and the governor of Northern Sinai. He also replaced the head of the Egyptian presidential guard. That took place Wednesday, August 8th.  A communiqué issued the same day on the M.B.’s IkhwanWeb.com described a so-called “unfolding conspiracy,” in vague terms, calling the soldiers who died in the attack on the Egyptian base, “victims of treachery and treason” and complaining of an attempt to use the incident to “violently and viciously [target] Islamists.”  President Morsi also ordered APCs, troops and attack helicopters into the Sinai to target the “militants,” but residents were reporting little evidence of battle, although a handful of jihadists were reportedly killed in gunfights over the weekend.

Late Sunday night (in Washington), August 12th, reports began to trickle out that President Morsi had sacked Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) head, Defense Minister Tantawi,  Army Chief-of-Staff Sami Annan and several other notable commanders, and canceled the constitutional arrangement instituted by SCAF intended to limit Morsi’s power. Essam El-Erian, the Chairman of the M.B’s “Freedom and Justice Party,” called the move an effort to “foil counter revolutionary plots.”

It will probably never be known for sure whether the initial attack which precipitated events was in the strictest sense orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to engineer the downfall of SCAF. It’s certainly possible, considering accusations by members of the Egyptian military that several high-ranking Hamas members in the Gaza Strip, Ayman Nofal, Raad Atar and Mohammed Abu Shamala, were responsible for the attack. Hamas, after all, openly describes itself as the “Palestinian” chapter of the Brotherhood, and Nofal actually escaped from a Sinai prison during the 2011 revolution, which would have given excellent opportunities for ties with both the Egyptian Brothers and the Bedouins who frequently make up the Jihadist factions in the Sinai.

The question of course is what happens now. In all likelihood what little resistance existed to a Muslim Brotherhood state in Egypt is now broken. With SCAF member Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, formerly head of military intelligence taking over as defense minister, and several other key commanders (including the head of the Egyptian 3rd Army based at Suez) taking plum positions in the new hierarchy, it will become increasingly easy to find collaborators within the army structure willing to side with the Muslim Brotherhood.  That means moving forward the M.B. will be able to replace those who participated in or benefited from this bloodless coup, if they should later on resist orders.

For students of revolutionary movements in general, and analysts in the Brotherhood in particular, there ought to have been no surprise here. The only actor in the Egyptian theater which possessed a conspiratorial organization, swiftly and purposefully acting on orders from its leadership was the Muslim Brotherhood.  In heady times of revolution and counter-revolution, such parties are always likely to rise to the top of the pile.

Whether the Brotherhood sparked the events in the Sinai to provide justification to carry out their coup, as the Nazis lit the Reichstag fire to justify their actions, or whether they simply responded to unfolding events with precise and aggressive action is ultimately irrelevant – the outcome, regardless of the excuse, was preordained.  The Egyptian army, the “most secular and pro-western institution in Egypt,” which is the refrain we have heard repeated ad nauseam, has failed to serve as the bulwark to Brotherhood power that we were promised.

 Indeed, if there is one silver lining to the weekend’s events in Egypt, it is that policymakers can perhaps finally outgrow their belief in the fictional security blanket of a secular, pro-Western Egyptian military preventing the creation of an Islamist Egypt, and finally move on with the dealing with the world as it really is, one in which Islamism is in a dangerous ascendance across the region.
(This article was first published at http://frontpagemag.com)
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