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Playing Poker in Cairo

Samuel Tadros

The Egyptian military’s warning that if the demands of the Egyptian people were not met within 48 hours it would act on its “historic responsibility” has lead many observers to expect a military coup. Coming after a day of massive street protests calling for the removal of the president and given the military’s historic role in the country’s affairs, such reactions by observers are understandable, though a more careful look at developments in Egypt renders the situation more complex than what it seems. The military’s statement was followed later with a clarification on its Facebook page declaring that no coup was planned, which itself came after a meeting between President Morsi, his prime minister, and the minister of defense. That would be the same defense minister who is supposedly conducting a coup against the very president he met a few hours later. If that is a coup, it surely is the weirdest one in history.

Imagine the situation in Egypt as a game of poker. Each party holds his cards closely to his chest, recognizing that his cards are less than perfect. He thinks he knows some things about the other players that can make him predict their actions, but he is not terribly sure about it. He would like nothing more than to bluff and raise the other players and force him out. Now let’s start by viewing each player’s cards.

Colonal General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi sits on top of Egypt’s most important and powerful institution, it’s military. His predecessor was sacked from his post by President Morsi last August. The Egyptian military has always been the pillar of the regime and the state since 1952 and enjoys enormous popularity and power. Its performance during Egypt’s transition has, however, left a lot to be desired. It failed miserably in actual governance, led a chaotic transition, and saw its popularity plummet as a result of its management. The institution views itself as the guardian of the nation and the best equipped to both define and defend its national interests. The collapse of the police force has put more burdens on its shoulders.

Sisi managed to change the tide. Though initially accused of being an Islamist pawn, he managed to return the military to historic popularity levels. The massive protests yesterday have been calling on him, even begging him, to take control. He is an extremely ambitious man and has a very large ego and he thinks he is the Godot Egypt has been waiting for.

Yet, Sisi is actually not so sure he wants direct control and responsibility of the country and he would prefer it would be done without a coup. Sisi realizes Egypt is ungovernable and that a return to military rule would mean an erosion of the military’s newly acquired popularity. More important, he knows that the Islamists are no easy foe. They will not sit down sipping tea while he removes Morsi. At the height of Mubarak’s rule it took the Egyptian state 15 years to defeat jihadists in the south of the country, and Sisi is not entirely enthusiastic about taking that shot. Even if he trusts his troops completely, which is in itself an open question, and even if he is willing to butcher the Islamists, he realizes that the international community might not be overly enthusiastic about such a scenario.

Instead he would prefer a deal. His rational is simple. If enough pressure is brought on Morsi, maybe some sense can be brought to the guy. A formula can be worked out; maybe it will be early presidential elections, or guaranteed free parliamentary elections under army supervision, or a national unity government. Whatever the end result may be, it will be a working formula where no political actor is strong enough to take over the state and they are forced to work together with the army as guarantor of everyone’s good behavior. With massive street protests and the threat of a coup, Sisi’s calculation is that he can force Morsi to back down and not raise him in the game.

Morsi has a bad hand. His performance in actual governance has been miserable and he has managed to alienate many of his initial supporters. After the high expectations of the revolution, he has failed to deliver. The protests against him are massive and larger than he expected, though not as large as his opponents may be dreaming. He recognizes that this is a make-or-break moment for him, but, more important, for his organization.

Morsi is not an independent player on the table; he represents and is guided by a larger entity, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has waited for this moment for 80 plus years. It saw its future brighten unexpectedly with the fall of Mubarak only to find another danger awaiting it at the corner. It is obsessed with conspiracy theories and cannot see or interpret the world outside of it; it cannot allow this moment to slip from its hands. This is it: victory or death. The Brotherhood knows that in the event of a coup, no matter how hard it fights, the odds are not high for it. A prolonged civil war following in the footsteps of Algeria is not in its interests, and, contrary to expectations, the Brotherhood really isn’t a revolutionary movement. It accepted working in stages through the system for 80 years.

The Brotherhood has to act in the same manner the military is acting. It has to bluff. It knows the United States will not be enthusiastic about a coup and it knows the military is unsure of how much support the Brotherhood still has or what other Islamists might do. It has called for its supporters to demonstrate in the millions tomorrow and aims to show that Morsi still has a street backing him. It hopes that both the fear of the American reaction and the fear of clashing with Islamists will force the army to reconsider. It realizes it will have to give some concessions, but it does not want to share power in any serious manner.

Maybe there is some hope after all in Egypt. An actual balance of power may be in the making, not in constitutional articles but on the ground. All parties need to recognize that the country is larger than them and a bit of humility on their parts is badly needed.

There is, however, a perfect storm in the making here. Neither player has actually played poker before in his life. They may end up raising each other to the point of no return. Other smaller players may force their hands. Some police officers shooting at the Brotherhood’s deputy leader’s house or an Islamist opening fire on an army patrol may be the trigger to bring the whole house down on everyone’s heads.

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