Egypt’s president, Mohammad Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood, has asserted civilian presidential control, or at least the appearance of it, over the Egyptian military. Today he released a surprise statement revealing he had demanded the resignation of several top generals, including Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
Tantawi, as the minister of defence and the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, had been the country’s effective ruler during the transition from Mubarak. He was seen by many as holding more real power than the President himself. The statement also named Mahmoud Mekki, a former senior judge, as vice president (leaving Morsy’s promise to include a female and a Christian among a group of co-vice presidents unfulfilled).
A constitutional amendment annexing presidential powers, issued by the military as the president was being elected, will be revoked. This also reverts powers previously held by the parliament (which the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved on an electoral technicality). Morsy has, it seems, vested his presidency with both full executive powers and the legislative responsibilities that SCAF had assumed from the parliament after Mubarak’s fall.
Perhaps most important of these is responsibility for guiding the drafting process of the new constitution. Should the constituent assembly named for the task by parliament be unable to complete the document, a new assembly shall be selected not by SCAF or by parliament (the status of which remains ambiguous) but by Morsy himself.
The reshuffle, along with the firing of high level defence and intelligence figures earlier in the week, are framed as a reaction to the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai as they broke their Ramadan fast. The attacks led to the closure of Egypt’s border with Gaza, and statements that the many tunnels — which provide a vital route for goods in and out of Gaza — would be demolished. Any plans by Morsy to ease the siege of Gaza, which Egypt enforces in cooperation with Israel, have been thwarted. Instead, Morsy has transformed the moment into an opportunity to assert his authority.
Along with Tantawi this latest move has displaced the number two man in SCAF, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Annan, the Commander of Air Defense and the Commander in Chief of the Navy. The changes may not be as dramatic as they seem, however. Both Tantawi and Annan were awarded Egypt’s highest honour, the Order of the Nile, and officially appointed as advisors to the president.
The other fired generals also received soft landings. The former head of the Air Force has been appointed head of military production, which can also be read as a signal that the military’s sprawling business concerns are not threatened. The former Navy Chief has been put in charge of the Suez Canal, a signal to Washington that their deep ties with the Egyptian military still provide important strategic guarantees. Furthermore, Tantawi’s replacement as defence minister, is not a civilian — rather it is Abdel Rahman El-Sissi, a prominent member of SCAF and previously the head of Military Intelligence. The other generals seem likely to be replaced by their deputies. The military institution remains intact.
Hesham Sallem, Egypt editor of the group blog Jadilliya, which collates expert Middle East analysis told New Matilda that "a change in personnel doesn’t necessarily mean a change in the distribution of power". He said it was clear that the Brotherhood had made accommodations for the concerns and interests of the military, the core bureaucracy of which, along with other state institutions, remains largely unreformed.
But it is impossible to deny the significance of an elected civilian president exercising public authority over the military, even if it is little more than symbolism. That the military seems to be going along with it is very telling. Either they have accepted this idea, at least in principle, or they are unable to do anything about it. Either is a positive outcome for the Egyptian revolution.
This in turn raises the question of where the US stands on the issue. It is yet to release a statement on the moves; it also funds the Egyptian military to the tune of US$1.3 billion a year.
It is possible that the US had agreed to the deal and encouraged the generals to play ball, afraid of a confrontation causing further instability in such a strategically crucial ally. This would indicate that, as New Matilda suggested when Morsy took the presidency, that the United States, at least under its current administration, is adjusting to the future reality of a Middle East dominated by Sunni Islamo-democrats. Indeed in Syria at least they seem to be actively working towards this end, supporting the opposition, within which the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful force.
The consolidation of executive power is accompanied by a soft power win for the Brotherhood, who appointed a number of new, perhaps equally unsavoury — but more Brotherhood-friendly — bosses to positions in state media, further tilting the power balance in their favour.
So far the Brotherhood have been pragmatic. Morsy may be emerging as a master of balance and accommodation, having made room at the Brotherhood’s table for the military. Now that responsibility rests more squarely on his shoulders, whether he can also make accommodations for the demands of the people expressed in the revolutionary chant "Bread, Freedoom and Social Justice" is yet to be seen.
His task will not be an easy one. Sectarian and class tensions have been boiling over into violence. Public utilities like water and power are failing. The economy continues to struggle and the government is going broke.
All this seems set to come to a head in the next few months, forcing a devaluation of the Egyptian pound. This in itself would massively inflate the cost of the government food subsidies that keep Egypt’s poor from starving. To make matters worse, however, it seems it may coincide with and a looming spike in global food prices driven by extreme weather.
To pass through the coming storm Morsy must hurt either the masses, or the economic elite that includes both the military high command and the brotherhoods wealthy backers. With his moves yesterday to assert authority over the military, Morsy has surprised many of his detractors. Let us hope he and the Brotherhood continue to surprise us.
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