CAIRO — Battered by a fractious security situation and embroiled in an escalating feud with the United States, Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has found it easier to take power than to govern. Now, according to Western diplomatic and Egyptian military sources, it's facing another challenge -- maintaining control over an increasingly restive officer corps.
The SCAF is deeply concerned with the growing friction between itself and mid-ranking officers, a Western diplomat with intimate knowledge of the council's internal workings told me. As a result, the council has been increasingly reluctant to do anything that would risk causing its relationship with the Army to deteriorate further.
"[SCAF] is not giving out orders that could be disobeyed, not even potentially," the diplomat said. "It knows it cannot ask its soldiers to do something they don't want to do. If it asks soldiers to, say, fire on protesters, SCAF knows it could end up with something like the Russian Revolution," the source added, in reference to an army mutiny that helped precipitate the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917.
There are signs that the SCAF has taken steps to make sure the Army isn't put in a position where it has to bear the brunt of popular anger. For example, the much-maligned Interior Ministry's police forces were deployed during the clashes in Cairo and elsewhere following the Port Said soccer riot. This stood in contrast to previous crackdowns, such as the now infamous "blue bra" attack in December on a female protester, when Army personnel took the lead.
Although the Army has stayed out of more recent street clashes, it remains the ultimate guarantor of the SCAF's power. It is overseeing security at polling stations for the ongoing Shura Council elections, for example, and deployed on the streets ahead of a planned general strike. Last weekend's walk-out went off without incident, saving the Army from the awkward decision of how aggressively to crack down on protesters.
One Army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said that there was growing disquiet among his colleagues, who feel that the Army is being manipulated to suit the SCAF's political ambitions.
"It is totally crazy that we are getting asked to keep law and order in the country. This is the job of the police, not the Army," he said. "But there are certain things they know they cannot make us do."
The military has already endured dozens of desertions since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, predominantly among its officer class. According to Western diplomatic sources, the SCAF has expedited dozens of promotions for younger officers in a bid to keep them on board with its proclaimed goal of handing over power to a civilian government after the presidential election, which was recently moved up to May.
It is a poorly guarded secret that officers have been receiving extra pay since protests began, but the remuneration handed out by the SCAF may be even larger than previously thought. Another Western diplomat said that he had seen evidence of regular payments of up to $11,600 to officers holding the rank of colonel and higher. A previous report by an Egyptian army insider, in which he alleges that reserve officer salaries doubled during the protests in January and February, supports this account.
It is the officer class, the diplomat said, that the SCAF is most concerned with appeasing.
"Many of these are officers, often trained in the United States, that come back to Egypt and cannot figure out why the military and the country is still being run by military people," the diplomat said. "Very senior officials do not want to risk a split, and infantry members mostly follow orders, but the officers are the ones to watch."