CAIRO (Reuters) - Protesters are back in Tahrir Square and the new president is in the firing line, but the military that until earlier this year was at the center of Egypt’s turbulent politics is staying out -- and is likely to keep it that way.
The army has kept a low political profile since President Mohamed Mursi sacked top generals in August, including Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi who led the military council that was in charge of a 16-month transition after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.
There is no sign this will change even as Egypt faces a new political crisis after another audacious move by Mursi, this time seizing extra powers. That action has set off a storm of criticism and protests by opponents to rule by the Islamist.
“The military council and the armed forces have left the political scene after handing power to the elected president,” one general said to Reuters, declining to be named because the army wanted to avoid making any public political pronouncement.
“The armed forces have now gone back to its natural role of protecting the nation,” he said, adding that the army would only step in “if called upon to protect the people” in a crisis.
That echoes a line often repeated by the army, that it will protect the nation and would only intervene if requested, which analysts and diplomats say the military is likely to stick to for fear of further damaging a reputation that took a beating during the messy transition period when it was in charge.
Many officers in the military became increasingly worried when the army was in power because mounting opposition to its role was both undermining their prestige and threatening to damage huge business interests, analysts and diplomats said.
That may have encouraged the second tier generals to back Mursi when he pushed out the top officers in August. Those new generals owe their promotions and loyalty to Mursi.
“The military is now out of the picture. They are not interfering in these political issues,” said Mohamed Kadry Said, a former general and head of the military studies unit at Cairo’s Al Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies.
He said matters changed when Tantawi and chief of staff, Sami Enan, were pushed out. Tantawi had been in the post of defence minister for two decades under Mubarak.
“The armed forces’ loyalty is to the people and the nation,” General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who now heads the military and is the new defence minister, told a graduation ceremony.
“The armed forces role is to protect the stability of the nation internally and externally,” he said in comments carried by the official news agency during the latest political crisis.
Diplomats and analysts suggest the army would only act if Egypt faced unrest on the scale of the revolt that toppled Mubarak. Protests and violence now are nowhere near that stage.
Hundreds were killed in the anti-Mubarak uprising as protesters battled police until the army moved into the streets with tanks. So far, there is only one fatality in this crisis.
“The strong impression I have is that the military is really out of domestic politics, and the only way I would expect them to get involved is if there is really serious unrest, and even then probably only at Mursi’s request,” said Elijah Zarwan, a fellow with The European Council on Foreign Relations.
Perhaps indicating how much the military wants to distance itself, when warplanes buzzed Cairo on Sunday in a way eerily like a moment at the height of the uprising against Mubarak, the military quickly reiterated that it was a training exercise.
“I suspect that many officers were uncomfortable with the military continuing to take a direct role in the country’s politics and felt it was dangerous for the country and harming the military’s prestige,” Zarwan said.
The army still retains hefty influence. It has taken a leadership role in a crackdown on militants in Sinai, a lawless area near the sensitive border with Israel, and controls a business empire that ranges from weaponry to bottling water.
Those interests could have faced more unwelcome scrutiny from civilians if it had clung on to power longer, say analysts.
Now, rather like under Mubarak, it is showing no overt role in politics although this time it no longer has a former commander, like Mubarak and his predecessors, in top office.
“The armed forces is a neutral institution meant to serve the nation and protect its borders,” said Seif el-Din Abdel Fattah, an analyst and one of Mursi’s advisors.
“A new leaf has been turned since the military council has handed power to an elected president.”
Additional reporting by Tom Perry; writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Philippa Fletcher