Egypt: Morsi moves against the military’s top brass

By Khadija Patel 13 August 2012

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi set the cat among the pigeons on Sunday evening when he announced through a written statement that he had pensioned off the country’s top military brass. Nobody, not even the two generals who were palmed off with national orders, saw this coming. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Egypt‘s new president Mohamed Morsi dismissed two of the country’s most senior generals on Sunday as he cancelled a military order that curbed the powers of his office. Morsi’s spokesperson announced that long-serving minister of defence Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan would retire, revealing as well a supplement to the Constitutional Declaration, which effectively had Morsi sharing power with the country’s powerful military. 

“Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has been transferred into retirement from today,” presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, said in a statement. In his place as armed forces chief and defence minister, Morsi appointed General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the youngest of Egypt’s generals, while Anan was replaced by General Sidki Sobhi. Both men, whose positions may have been weakened by an embarrassing military debacle last week against suspected Islamist militants in the Sinai desert, were appointed as advisers to the president.

But Morsi, speaking in a scheduled television appearance at Al-Azhar university on Sunday night, was careful to stress that that the move against Tantawi and Anan was not a move against the men themselves but was instead an altruistic move for the good of the country.

“The decisions I took today were not meant ever to target certain persons, nor did I intend to embarrass institutions, nor was my aim to narrow freedoms. I did not mean to send a negative message about anyone, but my aim was the benefit of this nation and its people,” he said, tempering his message with praise for the armed forces.

Earlier, his spokesperson said the move was calculated to better develop the institutions of the Egyptian state. “The decision was a sovereign one, taken by the president to pump new blood into the military establishment in the interests of developing a new, modern state,” he told Reuters.

And though the move to shelve Tantawi in particular is significant, Morsi’s repeal of the constitutional declaration that curbed his powers is also coupled with the cancellation of the constitutional declaration issued just before Mursi’s election, through which Tantawi and his colleagues curbed presidential powers. As a result, Morsi was elected to a presidential office almost as a figurehead. It was Tantawi and co. who still controlled key ministries, like defence and foreign affairs. And though Morsi appeared amenable to the military’s wont for control when he was elected, his move on Sunday seems to indicate a substantial reordering of Egypt‘s political hierarchy as the country waits for a new constitution to be written.  

Crucially, it is Morsi who now who now holds legislateive powers as well as overseeing the writing of the new constitution. As Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and Middle East analyst, mused on his blog after the announcement, “This is BIG.” 

It was not clear how far Morsi had consulted with Tantawi before issuing the decree. The newly appointed defence minister, General Mohamed Al-Assar, told the media that he, at least, was aware of the move before it was announced on national television. “The decision was based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council,” Al-Assar said.

Other well-placed analysts, however, claim that it was only the generals who were promoted that were consulted by Morsi, and Tantawi was definitely not consulted, fuelling speculation that Sunday’s reshuffle of the military top guns was enabled by a rift between the generals – a rift that Morsi was able to capitalise on. Cole notes, “Morsi says that he consulted the other officers of SCAF about these changes. That datum, if true, makes this move sound a little like a junior officers’ coup enabled by the president.”

“The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity,” Issandr Al-Imrani, a commentator from the popular Arabist blog, wrote in his analysis of Sunday’s events.

Tantawi is, of course, no bit player in Egyptian politics. He was the head of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took over Egypt when Hosni Mubarak was deposed last year, and he served as defence minister since 1991. “The really surprising thing is that for months there had been reports of positioning within the military-intelligence nexus for the succession battle for post-Tantawi,” Al-Imrani notes. But if Tantawi and his allies will indeed slink away into the retiring home gracefully remains to be seen.

Morsi’s election was greeted as a tacit endorsement of the continued role of the military in the Egyptian state, but what remains to be seen is how far his moves on Sunday will shift the power balance between the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails. 

Al-Imrani believes that Morsi’s move does not significantly change the dynamics of his relationship with the military, but rather reconfigures it. “This continuity suggests to me that we are dealing with a reconfigured SCAF that is nonetheless a powerful entity that still has powers parallel to the presidency and other civilian institutions. It is not, as the initial reaction to today’s news largely was, a victory by Morsi over the military. Rather, it is a reconfiguration of the relationship,” he says. DM

Photo: Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi (R) observes as Egypt’s newly appointed Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sissi salutes during at the presidential palace in Cairo, August 11, 2012. Mursi ordered Egypt’s two top generals to retire, including Hussein Tantawi who led the nation after Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and appointed two generals in their place, the presidential spokesman announced on Sunday. Mursi also cancelled a constitutional declaration aiming to limit presidential powers which the ruling army council issued in June as the election that brought Mursi to power drew to a close. Picture taken August 11, 2012. REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency


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