Tuesday, August 21, 2012

COUP De Grace? (Morsi and the Egyptian Military)

On August 13, the Egyptian President dismissed the country’s top military officers, Defense Minister Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Chief of staff Lieutenant General Sami Annan. Five other generals were sacked from office. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, a former head of military intelligence replaced Tantawi while General Sedky Sobhy, an Islamist, was appointed as the new chief of staff. The members of the upper echelons of the military are scheduled to be replaced by the younger members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Morsi also annulled a controversial provision in the constitution giving vast powers to the generals. Two days after the dismissal of two top officers, they were given positions in the president’s advisory council.

The military presided over state affairs since the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Last July, the military dissolved the parliament by the virtue of a Supreme Court decision questioning the election process. The parliament has yet to be reconvened to draft the new constitution. At present, Morsi holds full executive powers and without the parliament, he also serves as the de-facto prime legislator. These developments illuminate the power struggle between the first civilian president of Egypt and a military which aims to limit his power.

Many speculated that Morsi’s move is just symptomatic of the hushed political squabble between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the military. There were rumors that the military has been planning a major coup this August, and Morsi just responded to avert the scheme. Junior officers welcomed the president’s move since they have been demoralized by the political entrenchment of their senior counterparts, who deprived them of decent salaries and quality military equipment. All presidents since the 1952 revolution were military officers. The institution has been discredited in the eyes of the Egyptians due to their privileged position in society. It owns at least 35 factories and companies (20 percent of Egypt’s industries) and many of its officers occupy the posh apartments of Alexandria and Nasser City. 

Morsi’s purge of the “old woods/brass” can be a mechanism to dismantle the dual power in the country and consolidate the government. This is a politically engineered strategy to significantly broaden his powers. The country is still waiting for the new constitution which explains his current political swagger. After praising the military in his speech, he admonished it to concentrate on its “holy mission of protecting the nation". What he meant by “protection” is subject to various readings. The president argued that the move was not directed at a certain group of people and that there is a current need move the country “towards a better future with a new generation and long-awaited new blood.” Rebuilding Egypt necessitates the introduction of young blood in the military. For sure, it sent a chilling effect to the entrenched political institution. The Egyptian military is the largest military in the Middle East and the 10th in the world thanks to massive US aid ($1.3 billion annually). 

Any attempt to undermine the positive role of Egyptian military could be a “political suicide” on the part of the president. Morsi has yet to recover from the political consequences of a violent standoff on the Sinai Peninsula between the military and militants where 16 soldiers were killed. Majority of the people still value the contribution of the institution in modernizing the country. The October 1973 victory of the military is one of the most celebrated events in the country’s history. Military officers gained the respect of the nation when they refused to fire on peaceful demonstrators during the revolution. Nonetheless, the army appears to concede to Morsi's purge, perhaps fearing the breakout of another civil war resulting from any act of defiance.

Morsi’s move can also be a subtle technique to introduce MB’s pan-Islamist project. Many fear the introduction of Sharia vision of society. General Sedky Sobhy  once wrote a paper lambasting US  policy in the Middle East when he studied in the National War College in Washington in 2005. There has been a crackdown on secular dissidents as Morsi calls for a more Islamic constitution in the country. Geopolitically, Israel is now on it toes for a possible Intifada in Egypt. The peace treaty with Israel (Camp David Treaty), which the generals have safeguarded for more than three decades could be destabilized by the Morsi regime. President Mohamed Morsi is scheduled to visit Iran on August 30 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement meetings. He also made an earlier pronouncement that Egypt and the Palestine are “one”.

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