Turning point in Egypt’s militarization
BY SARAH EL SIRGANY
Cairo: President Mohamed Morsi’s decisions to force the retirement of Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi and assume powers once awarded to the military, are a turning point in Egypt’s decades-long legacy of state militarization and a defining feature in the Muslim Brotherhood’s future relationship with the generals.
Two hours before iftar on Sunday, Morsi ordered the retirement of Tantawi and the Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan and canceled an addendum to the interim constitution issued by the military in June, days before Morsi was elected president, in what was seen as a preemptive move to limit his authorities.
He also named the vice president, Mahmoud Mekky, a reformist judge and brother of recently appointed Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekky.
Head of the military intelligence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was named the new minister of defense and Major General Sedky Sobhy replaced Anan.
“This move will enter history as a significant shift in civil-military balance of power towards the civilian side,” said Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Studies at Exeter University and an expert in security sector reform and Islamist movements. It is the first time in Egypt’s history for an elected civilian politician to overrule the military’s decisions, he explained.
The changes come in the heels of a turbulent and eventful week. On Aug. 5, an attack on a military unit in Sinai left 16 soldiers dead. Morsi, who didn’t attend the funeral for alleged security reasons, later sacked the heads of the General Intelligence Services, the Military Police and the Republican Guard.
It’s not clear if Sunday’s decisions were a response to the Sinai attack, which raised concerns about the state of the military, or if the attack was a convenient coincidence that paved the way for these preplanned shuffles.
The impact of the decisions on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled the country since February 2011 and has gradually attained powers that at one point arguably superseded those of the elected president, is open for debate.
Political analyst Issandr El-Amrani said SCAF will remain a powerful entity. “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 wrote.
While others tend to agree that a change in figureheads doesn’t mean an institutional overhaul, other analysts believe the move has serious implications on SCAF’s authorities. Canceling the constitutional addendum strips the generals of the legislative powers they had awarded to themselves.
SCAF lost its “official political role” through which it could have influenced the drafting of the constitution to preserve a special status for itself, explained Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation.
“If the army wants to play a political role now, it has to do it very differently. It has to be informal. They don’t have any mechanism in terms of formal power,” he said.
However, he continued, it’s strange for the army to let go of what it has been fighting for over the past 18 months, and “it’s been fighting very hard.”
Behind the scenes
Understanding the implications on the political scene is rooted in figuring out the details of the process itself. Analysts and journalists familiar with military affairs were surprised by the decisions and couldn’t confirm if Tantawi and Anan knew about their retirement beforehand. Many are waiting in anticipation to see if there would be a reaction against Morsi from the military in the next couple of days.
Yet, there’s consensus that this move wouldn’t have been possible without support from army factions, whether in the middle and lower ranks or within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which Tantawi headed and of which El-Sisi was member.
“There are indications that this is a coup from within the military’s own ranks, seemingly aimed at securing its privileges away from uncertain political battles that primarily pertain to Tantawi and Anan’s prestige and not to the army establishment’s autonomy and its own interests,” explained Hesham Sallam, a co-editor of the analytical website Jadaliyya.
Over the past year and half, commentators on the pro- and anti- SCAF camps have indirectly implied the existence of conflicting loyalties within SCAF, including generals more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, which have been steadily gaining more ground.
Sallam, however, pointed to more recent indications. The [Mohamed] Al-Assar and El-Sisi-led coup, he argued, was to “preempt a prospective coup attempt that could have gotten the army into uncertain political confrontations” that would have cost it dearly. These indicators show that “some elements within the SCAF had been prodding their allies inside the media establishment to begin promoting the image of popular support for a coup.”
Consequently, security forces went overboard to ensure that the edition of Al-Dostor newspaper that called for a coup against Morsi was confiscated, which was a further indication of the opposing camps within the military, he added.
In the face of all of these theories, the military is going to lengths to stress its unity. SCAF member, General Mohamed El-Assar, who was appointed deputy defense minister, told Reuters the decision was taken in consultation with Tantawi — although Mohamed Fouad Gadallah, the president’s legal adviser, said the top generals had no clue.
Sources inside the military said the recent reshuffle was met with relief, specifically praising Sedky. The unpopularity of Tantawi was no secret.
El-Sisi, who last year admitted to Amnesty International the army use of forced “virginity tests” on female detainees, was described as a clever choice. “Not only was he spearheading an anti Omar Suleiman faction, [the former GIS chief] whose demand was to keep Mubarak in power, or at least give him an honorable exit, but also El-Sisi has enough information on the army’s internal factions — being head of military intelligence,” said Ashour, “This will be of enormous use to the President.”
Celebrations and concerns
Outside the military, the reaction is mixed. The celebratory sentiment expressed by activists who have been calling for the end of military rule was only paralleled by concern about the growing powers of the MB.
Morsi now holds both executive and legislative authorities. Parliamentary elections are to be held two months after the new constitution is approved in a referendum. Morsi also has the authority to appoint a new constituent assembly in case the current one is unable to do its work — a power the military gave itself in the now-cancelled June 17 constitutional decree.
Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr, spokesman of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, told ON TV Sunday that Morsi ended the duality of power, between the president and SCAF, with his decision. He dismissed as ineffective calls for anti-MB demonstrations on Aug. 24, but nonetheless said political powers will ensure democracy is maintained.
“Egypt got rid of military leaders who outstayed their welcome, but may instead get a more subtle military leadership that is better able to work out an understanding with a Muslim Brotherhood that seems attached to a majoritarian idea of democracy,” explained El-Amrani.
With SCAF partly out of the picture, the context isn’t reason for optimism.
Over the past week, Morsi has been fostering a network of supporters within state institutions and set off an alarming crackdown on dissent. In addition to the confiscation of the Sunday edition of the daily tabloid Al-Dostor, Al-Faraeen channel was closed and its notorious owner and TV host Tawfik Okasha was referred to investigations for inciting the assassination of President Morsi. A number of MB supporters reportedly attacked and intimidated talk show hosts critical of the MB during a protest outside the Media Production City.
The recent appointments of chief editors of state-run newspapers reveal a preference towards yes-men, according to critics and journalists within these state institutions that are staging protests against their new bosses.
The same applies to the recently appointed cabinet, which was dominated by ministers that signaled continuity rather than change. The selection of the ministers implied at the time that Morsi was caving in to SCAF demands rather than putting his foot down. The choice of cabinet didn’t indicate Morsi was contemplating such a bold move, much less that soon. In fact, pundits had projected that Morsi would hold off on any possible confrontation with the generals.