Egypt's Morsi cleans house. But a coup? Hardly

The new heads of Egypt's military branches come from within the system, and the outgoing old guard retains both influence and great wealth.

By , Staff writer

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    Newly-appointed Egyptian Minister of Defense, Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, meets with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Aug. 13.
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Have President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood swept away Hosni Mubarak's old guard and set the stage for a rapid Islamization of the Egyptian government?

Almost certainly not. President Morsi's moves yesterday, taken in consultation with the Islamist movement that vaulted him to the presidency, were a bold reworking of the rules of the Egyptian transitional game. He sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the heads of the air force, army, and navy, appointed a respected judge as his vice president, and with the stroke of a pen undid a set of restrictions that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had imposed on Egypt's political transition.

By any measure, he and his movement are in a much stronger position than they were Saturday. But how long that position of strength will last, and how much Morsi will be able to accomplish, given the country's perilous financial position and tremendous political polarization, are far from clear. The military's still substantial influence, Morsi's need for foreign cash and support, and the fears of a sizable minority of Egyptians about the Brotherhood's goals have littered the political landscape with minefields.

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Morsi announced that Tantawi would be kept on as an adviser, and many of the sacked generals were given senior posts in government companies or in the state bureaucracy. Though rumors flew around Egypt that Tantawi and former Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan were under house arrest, on allegations that they'd been plotting a coup, that seems highly unlikely. Replace a general? Sure. Send a message to the rich and powerful officer corps that they could end up stripped of their wealth or joining Mubarak in jail? That's the sort of thing that could galvanize the military and bureaucracy against him.

Carefully planned

Though the move seemed like a bolt from the blue, it was clear that Morsi and his advisers had been laying the ground work for some time, and the chance that they felt out many senior officers before going ahead is very high. In hindsight, the ball got rolling after Aug. 5, when jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula attacked and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border with Israel. It was the deadliest attack on Egyptian troops in decades and a black eye for the security services, which have appeared helpless or unwilling to enforce order in the Sinai.

Morsi quickly fired intelligence boss Mourad Muwafi, the head of the military police, the head of the central security forces, and the head of the presidential guard, among others. The presidential guard and the CSF are directly responsible for the safety of the president and the capital, so it's not surprising he'd want people who owed their jobs to him in those posts before making any other moves.

On Saturday, the government banned the distribution of that day's edition of al-Dustour, a paper that has been sharply critical of Morsi and the Brothers. The Saturday edition carried an editorial accusing the Brotherhood of seeking to transform Egypt into an Islamic Emirate and urged Egyptians to stand with the military in the fight against Islamist politics. And opponents of the Brotherhood have called for street protests against the president on Aug. 24. That's plenty of context to understand why the Brothers might want to flex their muscles.

But has the situation in Egypt been transformed, as some takes have it?

For instance, The Times of London begins its story on yesterday's changes thus: "The sweeping away of the junta's old guard was a daring move by Egypt's President, reminiscent of the crucial scene of The Godfather when Michael Corleone does away with all his family's enemies in one fell swoop while cutting deals with others." 

The piece does immediately caveat that dramatic opening paragraph. "Yet the fact that Mohammed Morsi, the 'spare tyre' President who came to power only because the junta managed to block the Muslim Brotherhood's favoured candidate, appears to have consulted military leaders hints at yet another backroom deal in Egypt's cut-throat politics."

No coup and no killings

But still, no: Morsi has not, in fact, liquidated his toughest opponents, as Michael did in the famous Godfather sequence showing his henchman slaughtering his enemies while he attends his son's baptism and promises to "renounce Satan and all his works." The new heads of Egypt's military branches come from within the system, and the outgoing old guard retains both influence and the great wealth that Egypt's senior officer class has long been rewarded with.

The various articles that write of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood somehow executing a "coup" likewise miss the mark. At the moment, Morsi is the only Egyptian politician with any electoral legitimacy. When SCAF was running the show, the elected parliament was dissolved under a court order. SCAF itself? A group of generals, all of whom owed their position to Mr. Mubarak, who had sought to keep Egypt's civilian politicians under wraps.  He has simply exchanged some of the personalities within the bureaucratic and military pyramid.

This is not to say that Morsi and the Brothers aren't seeking to solidify their political position. That's clearly the objective from recent moves and the whole political dance that continues to unfold in Egypt. Marc Lynch turned his keen eye to events in Egypt over the weekend, arguing this is at most a mid-game gambit, not a master stroke.

"My general take is still that the current phase of Egyptian politics is going to be a long, grinding institutional war of position. That kind of politics can be deeply frustrating for an engaged public sphere, since so much of it takes place behind the scenes and in indirect maneuvers rather than in thrilling street protests or the realm of public debate.  For example, presumably Morsi and his team have been carefully preparing the ground for this weekend's moves during the weeks where his administration appeared to be passive, floundering, and ineffective. In this arena, Morsi's moves were a bold and unexpected frontal assault on the senior military leadership, but not a decisive one.  His appointment of the respected jurist Mahmoud Mekki as Vice President could be seen as another such bold move in institutional combat, by potentially co-opting or intimidating the judiciary. But bold as the moves were, they don't instantly wipe away the real power centers in Egyptian politics. Morsi today is more of a President, but Egypt is a long way from the "Islamic Republic" being bandied about by the Brotherhood's critics"

Long and grinding indeed. Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in February 2011. Today, the country does not have a sitting parliament, a new constitution, or a clear sense of political direction. When will parliamentary elections be held, and who will win? Will Morsi try to use his new powers to ram a new constitution through that will enrage secular forces in society, or try to appoint a more inclusive body to write the new rules of the game? Actions on those matters, hopefully soon, will begin to add some clarity to what has just happened.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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