CAIRO — For most of their year in power, President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood thought they had tamed Egypt’s military, forcing out top generals and reaching a deal with their successors that protected the armed forces from civilian oversight.
That deal collapsed this week.
With tanks and soldiers in the streets and around the presidential palace, the military’s top officer, General Abdul-Fattah El-Sissi, did not even utter Morsi’s name as he announced that the president had been deposed and the constitution suspended.
And suddenly Morsi, like his immediate predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, discovered the enduring fact that the military looks out for itself above all else. It is not ideological, but it is intensely politicized.
“Egypt’s military leaders are not ideologically committed to one thing or the other,’’ said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They believe in their place in the political order. They are willing to make a deal with virtually anyone, and this one didn’t work out, clearly.”
While justifying its intervention in politics as serving the will of the people, the military has never been a force for democracy. It has one primary objective, analysts said: preserving national stability and its untouchable realm of privilege within the Egyptian state.
But with millions in the street opposing the president, and the Muslim Brotherhood consistently trying to consolidate its authority, the military decided that time was up on the Morsi presidency.
“We were disciplined, and we have the weapons,” one ranking officer said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. “That’s what’s on the market right now. Do you see any other solid institution on the scene?”
The face of that military was Sissi, a rakish officer, his chest full of medals, a beret pulled tight over his forehead, as he grasped a lectern with both hands and addressed his nation, insisting that the goal was to restore national unity. He played down the military’s dominance as he installed a caretaker leader.
But his words of reconciliation and healing could not alter the cold reality of the moment.
The military, for the second time in two and a half years, was ousting the nation’s civilian leader, but this time that leader had been elected, freely and fairly. The removal underlined the armed forces’ status as Egypt’s most powerful institution since the coup six decades ago that toppled King Farouq.
“There was hope,” Sissi said in his televised address, “that there would be a national consensus to set a road map for the future and provide reasons for trust, comfort, and stability for this nation in a way that fulfills its ambition and aspiration.”
Egypt has the largest standing military in the Arab world, estimated at 450,000 troops. Most are conscripts and low-ranking officers who have little opportunity for advancement.
For decades, however, its tens of thousands of elite officers have jealously guarded their privileged station. They live as a class apart, with their own social clubs, hotels, hospitals, parks, and other benefits financed by the state.
Many have also grown wealthy through government contracts and business deals facilitated by their positions. It is, in some respects, a hereditary Brahmin caste, in which sons follows their fathers’ careers and they all live inside a closed social circle.
“It is a tightly knit group,” said Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and an expert on the Egyptian military. “They tend to think alike, and they are a force to be reckoned with because, besides the brotherhood, they are the only really cohesive institution in the country.”
When he addressed the nation Wednesday night, Sissi said the military had reached out to the president for months to try to defuse the crisis but had been repeatedly rebuffed. In appointing a little-known judge as interim leader, the military did not make clear how much authority he would have or whether it would run the country behind the scenes.