Egypt's President Morsi fires senior general Tantawi, asserting his power

Egyptian President Morsi didn't just fire Tantawi today. He overturned a constitutional declaration from Tantawi's military council that sought to tie the hands of the civilian president.

Sherif Abd Monam/Reuters/File
Egypt's president Mohamed Mursi (r.) speaks with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi this July. 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 August 12.

The expected showdown between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the military establishment that has consistently maneuvered to preserve its own power and privilege arrived today, far sooner than almost everyone expected. 

President Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that ran Egypt from the time Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 until Morsi's election earlier this year. Also fired were the acting chiefs of Egypt's military branches, who all served on the council. Morsi also unilaterally annulled constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had taken the power to legislate out of Morsi's hands.

The reaction so far from the military? None.

There have been no statements, no mobilization of troops, no evidence that they're going to stand up to Egypt's first elected civilian president. The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed for decades and that the security establishment of Egypt was focused on containing for over 50 years, now theoretically holds all the formal political power in the Arab world's largest country. He can legislate, nominate members of the constitutional drafting committee, set foreign policy, and apparently shuffle the senior ranks of the military at will.

Egypt's elected parliament was dissolved by a court order earlier this year backed by SCAF, and the only official balancing authority against the presidency left are the courts. But will the judges act against Morsi's moves today absent overt backing from the military? That seems unlikely, but all things are possible in a country with neither a democratic tradition nor any history of civilian political authority. 

"So far, it either seems like [the military is] acquiescing, which is totally out of sorts with how they've played everything for the past 18 months ... or it suggests there are bigger divisions within SCAF than maybe we were led to believe," says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York who has been studying Egypt's transition. "There's been a very clear implicit message until now that the army is not going to turn over all the keys of power to the [Muslim Brotherhood] and now that they've made the ultimate power play there hasn't been a response."

In many ways, the move is a simple assertion of civilian authority over the generals, something the US has been urging for the past year-and-a-half. But a politically-neutered army, if that's what has just happened, is not exactly what the US is interested in, given the Muslim Brotherhood's stance towards Israel, particularly given that Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, is an offshoot of the organization.

Also ousted today were Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan, Navy Commander Mohab Memish, and Air Force Commander Reda Hafez. Morsi appointed senior judge Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president, and named Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi as the new minister of defense. General Mohamed el-Asser, who was appointed deputy defense minister, told Reuters "the decision was based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council." Morsi's government said most of the fired generals would be retained as advisers or given senior civilian jobs in the state bureaucracy.

The absence of a parliament and a new constitution had until now left SCAF, a group of generals who owe their position to the now jailed Mr. Mubarak, as the only counterbalance to the presidency. The rules of the political contest in Egypt have been completely fluid, or in scholar Marc Lynch's coinage, an Egyptian version of Calvinball, with the rules constantly and capriciously changed by the players to see what they can get away with.

Today, Morsi has just declared "I win, you lose" to SCAF, and every hour that passes without a counter move by the army increases the chances that his declaration will stick.

"People like Tantawi and Enan do have a kind of ideological allergy to the Muslim Brotherhood. But now all their political power is gone, your senior leaders have been sacked, and now the president has all the levers of authority," says Mr. Hanna. He suggests that either the military is unwilling to take the nuclear option – a naked military coup – or the Brothers have been able to cut deals with other senior generals.

Either way, "now Morsi is a dictator on paper ... from my perspective, from any perspective, that's worrying. This is acting by fiat," says Hanna.

Egyptians who have been suspicious that the Brotherhood will seek to wrest full power for itself, and try to wipe away Egypt's secular state in favor of an overtly Islamic one, were alarmed by today's move. It followed the government seizure of Saturday's edition of Al-Dustour, a daily paper owned by a Christian, for "fueling sedition" and "harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law." Tawfiq Okasha, a conspiratorially-minded television personality sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck, who has repeatedly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned from foreign travel today. The television station he helps run had its broadcast license suspended last week.

Is this a pure power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood? It is far too soon to say, and some analysts doubt that the military's political power has been anywhere close to crushed. The military establishment still controls vast portions of the Egyptian economy and is central to ongoing efforts to restore order in the Sinai Peninsula. And the generals, after all, have the keys to the country's arsenal.

Issandr El Amrani writes that the senior officers who were promoted today were part of the establishment, not figures from left field, and "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."

Still, he writes: "These moves will be seen by many opponents of the Brotherhood as a power grab, and the fact that Morsi has amassed considerable power (again, on paper) is indeed cause for concern. The power to appoint a new constitutional assembly is particularly key, if he ends up using it, I certainly hope it will be to appoint something acceptable to non-Islamists rather than impose the one Islamists wanted earlier this year (unfortunately, the MB’s sense of electoral entitlement makes me pessimistic here.)"

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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