How Egypt's military regained popularity

The military coup in Egypt prompted protesters in Tahrir Square to chant, "The people and the army are one hand!" It was reminiscent of the square in 2011, but after the military coup that year, the military lost popularity. Now it has a second chance.

Military coup cheered by Tahrir Square protesters

Egypt`s first democratically elected president was overthrown in a military coup Wednesday night, prompting protesters in Cairo`s Tahrir Square to chant, "The people and the army are one hand!"

The Tahrir protests were even larger than those in 2011 that eventually led the military to overthrow Hosni Mubarak. After the military mishandled events following the 2011 coup, it lost popularity. Now it has a second chance.

In the past year the Egyptian military has regained popular support, but that was more a result of the growing unpopularity of the civilian political elite, especially the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Robert Springborg told CBC News.

Springborg, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in California (he's retiring in the fall and moving to Canada), is a sought-after expert on Egypt, especially its military.

In April and May, Zogby Research polled over 5,000 Egyptian adults and found what they term "near universal confidence in the army." That level of confidence held across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, the presidency, and the major political parties, both Islamist and opposition, are not trusted, the poll results suggest.

Springborg points out that a poll in almost any country would find a higher approval rating for the military, compared to the presidency and politicians, but does agree that in Egypt the military's popular support is especially high.

"The military has cultivated its public image very carefully for a very long time and built up a huge dependency upon it, with literally hundreds of thousands of people depending for their welfare on the military," he says.

Egyptians are taught that the military and Egyptian nationalism and national interests are synonymous, Springborg observes.

Should the military assume control?

Zogby also asked about possible next steps in Egypt. "A real national dialogue" was by far the favoured option.

Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, centre, flanked by military and civilian leaders, including opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, far left, addresses the nation on Egyptian State Television, July 3. Egypt's military chief suspended the constitution and removed President Mohamed Morsi from office. (Egyptian State Television/Associated Press)

When asked whether the military should assume control, 56 per cent were opposed, 44 per cent in favour, with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, which President Mohammed Morsi chaired, almost all opposed.

That was at least two months ago, however, and since then the movement calling for Morsi to go had gained considerable strength.

The military took note of that strength, and on July 1, the head of the military, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, gave Morsi 48 hours to resolve the disputes between his government and the opposition.

Gen. Sissi's Islamist leanings

Morsi put Sissi in charge of the military last August. Sissi is known to have Islamist sympathies, but he also has connections with the U.S. and U.K. militaries.

While in the infantry, he trained at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in England. In 2005-06, he studied at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. He also had a stint as the Egyptian military attaché in Saudi Arabia.

Springborg says the American military officers who worked with Sissi had a favourable impression of him, though his course work showed Islamist leanings.

When Morsi named him commander-in-chief, Sissi was the director of military intelligence. Born in 1954, he was then the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Springborg tells CBC News that Sissi "can present himself as sort of an Islamist soldier who's not against the role of Islam in political life, but that it was just the Brotherhood acting in pursuit of their own interests that was the problem."

As well, in Springborg's analysis, many younger Brotherhood members "would have thought that Morsi has profoundly mishandled governance and the military had not."

Is the military attempting to behead the Brotherhood?

Springborg suspects that what Sissi's military is "trying to do now is behead the organization, and they can only behead it if they think they have possibilities of reaching out to other members" of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Robert Springborg of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School says General Sissi's known Islamist leanings make him the best choice for the military to reach out to the country's Islamists. (Courtesy Naval Postgraduate School)

"They do have intelligence on the Brotherhood, so their doing this suggests to me that they think they can probably deal with the broader organization and appeal to it as long as they get the leadership out of the way," Springborg argues.

He expects the military to reach out to the broader Islamist base and says there is no one better to do so than Sissi, with his known Islamist leanings.

But Sissi needs to be careful. After the last coup, under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi the military overstepped and its popularity declined. Springborg says Tantawi got tempted by the fame and the glory.

That temptation is now there for Sissi, but so far "he is presenting himself and the military as the defenders of the nation's interests, not as the leader of the nation; and that's a significant difference.

"If he shifts into the leader role, then it's altogether another game." Springborg adds, noting that was a mistake Tantawi made.

'A moment of truth'

With this week's events in Egypt, all the political players are facing a moment of truth, not just Sissi and the military.

For example, Mohammed ElBaradei, the representative of the National Salvation Front in the negotiations with the military, "has to be careful that he not be seen as being a lapdog of the military or his position will be undermined," according to Springborg. Like many of the leaders of the political opposition, ElBaradei is on record as strongly opposed to the military. Some sources peg him as the next prime minister.

Sissi named Adly Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, to be the interim president. Mansour's appointment by Morsi to that top judicial post only took effect on July 1, although he had been the deputy head since 1992.

Springborg anticipates the storm over the coup will pass without Egypt dissolving into chaos and that it will quickly get back on track.