It will be some weeks before the dust settles and strong assessments of the significance of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's reshuffle of the country's military brass this weekend become possible.
One point that was made over eight months ago by Robert Springborg, a scholar of Egypt's military, is worth keeping in mind. Then, he pointed out that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who ran Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) until being unceremoniously dumped by President Morsi on Sunday, was not in as strong a position within Egypt's military establishment as he often appeared. SCAF was then running the country, and rumors were rife that General Tantawi might seek to upend Egypt's transition to democracy. But Mr. Springborg warned of important divisions within the military over Tantawi:
"General Tantawi must be aware that his perch atop both the SCAF and the military (indeed, for the moment, the entire state), is precarious. For years he was Mubarak's instrument to control the military. The measures he employed – including promoting the incompetent over the competent, minimizing training and general preparedness, redirecting the institution's primary efforts to economic rather than military pursuits, and ladling out dollops of patronage to retain loyalty – resulted in an indulged officer corps, but also one that harbors profound resentments. Those resentments have been greatly exacerbated by the SCAF's mishandling of the transition, especially the deployment of military units for crowd control, outright intimidation and even killing of demonstrators, and converting military bases into detention facilities."
Indeed, Egypt's military is a shell of a fighting force, run more by CEOs than fighting men. A stark reminder of that was the16 poorly trained and equipped Egyptian border soldiers who were killed by jihadists in the Sinai on Aug. 5. The Free Officers coup in 1952 that spawned the military-led order that prevailed until Hosni Mubarak was driven out by a wave of popular protests in February 2011 was driven by a sense of humiliation among the officer corps at the 1948 defeat to Israel. The officers blamed their defeat on corruption and politicking among both civilian leaders and senior officers. Sixty-years later the Egyptian military is once again a tool of patronage and personal advancement more than a fighting force, and that must sting for many of Tantawi's subordinates.
Most analysts of Egyptian politics reason that Morsi must have had clear signals from members of SCAF and the military more generally that they would be happy to live without Tantawi. The 75-year-old Tantawi himself may have been happy to step aside in exchange for a guarantee that his own financial dealings wouldn't receive the same scrutiny as the Mubarak family's. Whatever really happened, there is plenty to chew on in Springborg's prescient piece.
What exactly has happened in the past week or so in Egypt? A timeline below.
August 5: After well over a year of sporadic attacks on pipeline traffic, kidnappings, and attempted infiltrations of the Israeli border, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by militants as they broke their Ramadan fast. The attackers, with stolen military vehicles, then attempted to attack an Israeli border post, which ended in their deaths. In the months before the attack, Israel had said it was deeply worried about security in the Sinai (it's building a sophisticated fence along much of the desert border) and US officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had repeatedly reached out to Tantawi and urged him to do more to get the violence in the Sinai under control.
August 8: In response to the attack, Morsi fired the country's head of intelligence as well as the head of the presidential guard, the head of the central security forces, and other officials. In hindsight, it appears he was ensuring the loyalty of the security officials most responsible for his own well-being.
August 11: The police tried to confiscated all copies of that day's edition of al-Dustour, a paper that has launched strident attacks on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The edition carried an editorial urging Egyptians to stand with the military against the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahead of that move the government had also suspended the broadcast license of Al-Faraeen TV, which has repeatedly attacked the Brothers. Dustour editor-in-chief Islam Afifi and Tawfiq Okasha, an outrageously conspiratorial television host on Al-Faraeen, have been charged with insulting Morsi, and Mr. Okasha faces a further charge of incitement to murder the president. Given what came next, many Egyptians have theorized that Morsi viewed their activities as a trial balloon for a move against him by SCAF. Five days earlier, Morsi had appointed Muslim Brotherhood member Salah Abdul Maqsud as Minister of Information, which many Egyptian journalists worry portends a new wave of government censorship.
August 12: Morsi sacks Tantawi and the heads of the army, navy, and air force. He also issues a document that effectively nullifies constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had sought to circumscribe the civilian president's power. Shortly after the announcement, many wondered if the military would fight back. There has been no sign of that since, and state media has carried reports that SCAF was both consulted and approved of his decision.