Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi’s surprised his country and the world by sacking the two top military leaders who had effectively ruled since the resignation of former president Hosny Mubarak in February 2011. At the same time he announced their replacements, annulled the amended constitutional declaration the same generals had issued less than two months ago to limit his authority, and took for himself the powers they had granted themselves in March 2011. Morsi, frequently derided during and after the presidential election, as a weak leader is now more frequently described as the leader of a “counter-coup” who has established himself as the undisputed leader of a new Islamist authoritarianism. There is no doubt that Morsi is now the undisputed ruler of Egypt. Not since the pharaohs has any Egyptian ruler had so much power. At least in theory.
Before addressing the complicated and opaque politics of Morsi’s decision it is worth spending a bit of time on Morsi’s own situation. Morsi was nominated for the presidency by the Freedom and Justice party when it became clear that its preferred candidate, Khairat Shater, would be ineligible to run. Morsi had long been in Shater’s shadow and, despite his doctoral degree from the University of Southern California and his appointment at Cal State Northridge, has usually been presented in the media as an unimaginative drudge. Perhaps he is, but political history is littered with “spare tires” such as Morsi who by a train of accidents came to power and turned out to be surprisingly more effective than the more qualified person whose place they were holding. Lyndon Johnson accomplished more for social equity and civil rights than John F. Kennedy ever would or could have; Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky at nearly every turn; and Anwar Sadat was widely derided in the days after Nasser’s death as an ineffective place-holder who would be easily managed.
If it is a mistake to underestimate Morsi’s abilities and equally wrong to overestimate him and the Muslim Brothers, it may be an even larger mistake to underestimate the effect of being president. I doubt being president magically turns political leaders into pragmatic liberals. On the contrary I suspect it magnifies whatever sense they have of their own importance. Days after assuming office Morsi indicated he wanted to pray at the Azhar mosque. Six months or six years ago he would, at best, have been an inconspicuous figure in the back of the hall, but in June he was whisked with a special presidential security entourage to pray in the front row with senior Azhari shaykhs. I doubt he would have had the Saudi Embassy’s email address on his computer when he was a professor at Northridge; now he is the guest of King Abdullah at a summit. No doubt, Professor Morsi remains (in his heart) a good Brother and a devout Muslim, but President Morsi does not seem to have invited either Brother Shater or Supreme Guide Badi’ to the presidential palace for strategy discussions. From here on out if he disagrees with them or anyone else I’m sure there will be an ample supply of sycophants to tell him exactly how smart he is. One of them, in fact, appears to have been re-appointed editor of a state-owned newspaper after spending a time in professional purgatory for having been as effusive about Mubarak as he has recently become about Morsi. None of this is Morsi’s choice, but neither politicians nor professors are known for their modesty.
At the time of his election Morsi created a website (in English as well as Arabic) called the Morsi Meter. It’s been ticking since he took the oath of office and it lists 64 promises he planned to keep by the end of his first 100 days in office. The promises are all good government promises designed to affect ordinary Egyptians’ access to food, fuel, transportation, security, and cleanliness. As of today, 47 days after his inauguration, he has by his own estimate unambiguously achieved one goal: raising public awareness about the need for public cleanliness and why it’s sinful to throw garbage in the street.
Until last weekend it was easy to make fun of the Morsi Meter and the meager accomplishments his government could claim. This was doubly so given that the goals he proposed were themselves quite modest in a country experiencing ongoing shortages of diesel fuel, electricity, butane gas and cylinders as well as paid employment. A recent widely circulated cartoon, for example, showed a donkey hauling Metro cars because the Cairo underground has had trouble operating. Amusing as that image may be, in a tragic incident last week a young mother was killed when she exited a stalled train underground and was killed while walking to a nearby station.
In late July Morsi was a weak and beleaguered president. SCAF had issued a supplementary constitution before he was elected president that severely limited his power. In addition, SCAF had dismissed the Muslim Brother dominated parliament in the wake of a decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court that it had been elected unconstitutionally. Morsi had attempted, through a presidential decree, to recall parliament to session but was rebuffed in this attempt by the Supreme Court and SCAF. A riot in Dahshur, a town to the south and west of Cairo famous for the “Bent Pyramid”, had ended when the terrified Coptic community left en masse. That the police were unable to prevent the outbreak of violence there (and indeed in most of Egypt’s impoverished communities no matter what the causes or consequences) coupled with Morsi’s belittling of the sectarian dimensions of the conflict provided a sense of a president adrift. There was a growing sense that the state was increasingly debilitated since the armed forces could not respond to criminal incidents or local unrest and the government lacked the authority or the will to intervene.
The August 8 attack on an Egyptian border outpost in the Sinai by militants who killed 16 soldiers and were themselves killed as they attempted to drive commandeered vehicles into Israel did not immediately seem to be the key to unlocking the frozen domestic situation. Morsi and Field Marshall Tantawi visited the area and Morsi condemned the attack as did the Hamas leaders in Gaza who are ideologically and politically close to the Muslim Brothers. If the Nile Valley and the Delta have experienced a security deficit since the revolution, Sinai may be said to have slipped largely away from routine government control. Under Mubarak Northern Sinai was left to its own devices while the south saw a kind of uneven development of tourism which left many local people adrift. With the withdrawal of troops after the initial days of the revolution and the collapse of the police the north has become unstable as well. Since the revolution, religious sites have been destroyed, soldiers have been attacked, tourists have been kidnapped and the pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up dozens of times.
Morsi called a meeting of the National Defense Council which he chaired. We don’t know just what happened at that meeting between Morsi and the members of the SCAF, but one report that Sami Enan would be appointed Minister of Defense appears in hindsight to have been wildly inaccurate. Morsi must have already had some sense of disagreements between Tantawi, Anan, Roweini on the one hand and Abd al-Fattah Sisi and Sidky Subhi but they may also have emerged more clearly in these meetings. Morsi later removed the governor of North Sinai and the head of General Intelligence General Murad Muwafi. Muwafi claimed to have had prior knowledge of the attack but did not move decisively to prevent it.
Following Muwafi’s removal, Tantawi planned a funeral for the slain border guards. Morsi refused, at more or less the last minute to attend the funeral. At the time he claimed his presence would disrupt it but in the days since his supporters have reported a different version. They have improbably claimed that SCAF had planned to assassinate Morsi had he attended the funeral so as to overthrow the elected government. This information they say was passed on to them from sources in military intelligence close to the MB. Whether that information first passed before the eyes of the present Defense Minister who then headed that service we cannot say.
What these claims reflect, not unlike similar ones voiced by at least one leader of the MB that Israeli intelligence was behind the raids, is more likely the high level of suspicion the MB leadership had of the military. Despite having won a remarkable parliamentary victory the MB still see themselves as a beleaguered and threatened minority. Morsi’s peculiar behavior in Tahrir Square at his public inauguration when he opened his jacket to show that he was not wearing a bullet-proof vest is another example.
Egyptians sometimes speak of the events of the last week as the end of the 1952 regime, but it might be more accurate to say it is the end of the 1954 regime. True enough the Free Officers came to power in 1952, but it was not until 1954 that the younger officers ousted General Mohammed Naguib and barred the door to any return to parliamentary government. Their attack on the MB intensified after an assassination attempt (one in which real bullets were fired) on Nasser.
The last week provided an almost perfect narrative complement to the events of 1954. A rumored assassination attempt against an elected president in the wake of a failure by the military to protect the country’s borders provides the fitting end to the regime brought to power by a failed assassination attempt of a young army officer who came to power in the wake of the failure of the old monarchy to safeguard the country’s international interests.
The problem with the perfect storybook ending is that most of the structure of the old regime remains in place and that what has changed most recently is the transformation of the jerry-rigged institutional structure created for the post-Mubarak transition. As Sherif Younis has reminded us recently in a lengthy study of Nasserism the 1952 regime issued from a military coup accomplished by the Free Officers’ Movement made up of a tiny minority of primarily junior officers acting illegally and unofficially; on taking power they formed the Revolutionary Command Council which did rule; in July 1956 the RCC dissolved itself as Nasser assumed the presidency. The dictatorship that Nasser established was real and recruitment to its top positions came through the military and well into the Mubarak era the Ministry of Defense and Military Intelligence were the keys to regime stability and survival. Governance was not, however, in the hands of the army as a hierarchical establishment and succession to the presidency invariably came through nominally civilian mechanisms (both Sadat and Mubarak were incumbent vice-presidents when their predecessor died). Unlike the last 18 months the formal high command of the army between 1952 and 1956 did not routinely meet, make decisions, and issue communiqués.
Invoking SCAF to be used as a mechanism through which the army’s general staff could rule the country was an innovative anomaly. We still have no idea exactly how the decision was made and we have assumed, because it placed authority in the hands of the highest-ranking officers that, it was an instrument of the army hierarchy. This may well be true. But the example of 1952 and the conflict between Nasser and Naguib suggests a possibility worth at least considering: that the most senior officers had significantly less authority than they may have believed. SCAF nevertheless, unlike the Free Officers Movement issued from and represented the Armed Forces as a hierarchical institution. We know remarkably little about their thinking, however.
Judging by a widely circulated paper General Sedky Sobhy wrote when he was a student at the US Army War College, his generation may have a more academically inspired vision of the world and one more attuned to the exigencies of the international relations than was the case with either Tantawy or Nasser. The paper is primarily a recitation of commonplaces since Sobhy is paid to run a large hierarchical military organization not to write sparkling geopolitical commentary for the delectation of elite academics. What matters is not the absence of original thought but what particular banalities seem to animate Sobhy’s world view. Recent commentary has focused exclusively on his critique of the US relationship with Israel. What it reveals about Sobhy’s views on democratization are more important: “Although increased democratization of Arab regimes [among which, writing in 2005, he included mentioned Saudi Arabia and Egypt] must be handled carefully so that in and of itself it does result in the undesirable state of political and social instability….the initiation and implementation of democratic processes in the Middle East Arab countries must still be based on the premise of strong central governments [italics in original].” Sobhy never defines what a democracy (or successful democratic project in the post-modern inflected language of social science he seems to prefer) would look like. It does not seem much of a stretch, given his examples, to think that it is mainly a question of routine and relatively fair elections through which a powerful governing majority is legitimated.
Sobhy’s paper reveals the same concerns commonly voiced by SCAF (and occasionally ridiculed) during the last 18 months: the danger that foreign interests, or hidden hands as they were frequently called, would use the transition process to weaken the central state and even fragment the Egyptian territory. For Sobhy one important measure of the effectiveness of the central state is the presence of radical or violent Islamists operating freely on its territory (rather than, say, the levels of participation in government or the level of economic growth which might be more important for analysts from non-military institutions).
The new defense minister is Abdelfattah Al-Sissi from whom we have no convenient recently written position papers. Variously described as a “closet” Muslim Brother and a well-known figure in Washington, Al-Sissi evokes much the same response as did Omar Suleiman who he succeeded as head of military intelligence in the early days of the revolution. He is the man who presumably knows everyone’s secrets. He may also, as has been true of many intelligence chiefs, have been aware of the promise and danger of democratization as an electoral process set out in Sobhy’s paper: the value of electoral legitimacy set against the danger of a loss of central authority.
Seen in this context, Morsi’s decisions a week ago may be placed in a somewhat different context. A significant number of slightly junior officers may have felt that the task of SCAF had largely been completed and that it was time to end the increasingly cumbersome and anomalous situation that had emerged in February 2011. The events in Sinai could easily be read (as they probably are in Tel Aviv and Washington as well) as symptomatic of the loss of control over the national territory by the central state as the government and the army struggled over the nature of power and political institutions in the Second Republic.
What I am suggesting is in line with those who see Morsi’s dismissal of Tantawi and Enan as a decision made with (and probably by) SCAF itself or at least a significant set of officers within it. The ease with which Tantawi and Enan accepted their dismissal, the absence of any significant measures (such as an armed guard) to ensure that they would comply with Morsi’s order, and the orderly nature of the changes in the composition of the general staff all suggest that the Armed Forces not only acquiesced in but largely welcomed this change.
Two possible solutions were to transform the improvisation we call SCAF into open military rule or to cede power to an elected civilian government. Tantawi and Anan may have been willing to continue the SCAF process but almost no one else, including evidently a significant fraction of the senior officer corps, wanted to and it was clearly well outside the historical norm of Egyptian experience. SCAF introduced some remarkable innovations that, at least formally, went well beyond anything in earlier Egyptian practice: placing permanent legislative authority in the hands of the executive as well as giving the executive the power to write extensive constitutional texts. In the absence of a regularly constituted public authority these powers had to fall to someone and when SCAF let them go they clearly had to go to Morsi.
Morsi’s presidency has therefore gained its power from what I take to be the decision by the generals to place order and the integrity of the central state over the ephemeral pleasures of continuing to affect the institutional and political make-up of the new republic. The generals can now be assured that a stable, legitimate and powerful constitutional order is soon to be constitutionally founded. This was, I argued in early 2011, what the generals saw as their primary task,. It was the same task that led them, in the midst of massive demonstrations to seize power and it has largely been accomplished, allowing them to give it up. That it has been accomplished with the MB/FJP assuming political authority and without a liberal democracy being put into place is not likely to be or to have been a major concern of theirs. What they cannot have failed to notice is that the freely elected Morsi whose legitimacy presumably allowed him to displace two of their senior commanders on his own has also immediately moved to increase the salaries of the soldiers. Electoral democracy, Sobhi and Sissi have realized during their stay at the US War College in Carlisle, is not necessarily a bad thing at all for military budgets.
What this means for the future is, as everyone realizes, uncertain. The dominant view seems to be that the MB/FJP will now, through Morsi, consolidate its hold over the government. I would like to suggest the opposite: Morsi will now, through the MB/FJP consolidate his own power and that of the existing institutions of the state.
One remarkable thing that Morsi did not do after ousting Tantawi and Enan and issuing a constitutional declaration of his own was to re-convene parliament. This would be an inexplicable oversight if he were acting as an agent of the MB/FJP with unrestricted powers. Rather than acquiring legislative power he could have restored the elected legislative authority in which, as is well known, Islamists had an overwhelming majority. Perhaps, in a bit of concern with legality, he decided to defer to the Supreme Constitutional Court which has ruled the legislature unconstitutionally elected. Or perhaps, having just taken on the Armed Forces and won he was intimidated by the justices of the SCC who insisted that he take the oath of office before them.
There is another possibility. Morsi acquired his legislative powers from SCAF and, if I and others are correct, with the assistance of SCAF. If SCAF was indeed concerned with the strength of the central government which in Egypt has invariably been associated with the executive (under the monarchy and during the First Republic), they might have preferred not to bring a parliament back into session. Especially an elected parliament widely seen during its brief tenure as divided, weak, and incompetent.
Morsi is certainly an Islamist and he was long a member of the MB as well as the head of its political wing, the FJP. It is possible, however, the SCAF speaking for the Armed Forces as an institution was willing to cede power to Morsi and the presidency. Not to the MB or the FJP and not to the parliamentary system. But to Morsi himself acting as the elected president. Morsi, who has chosen to address the public frequently from mosques, is still an Islamist and the Islamist project has nothing to fear from him. Recruitment to high levels of government has probably gained a new channel and a new social base: members of Islamist movements from the professional elites as well as through the military. But, as I will address in my next post, the role of the MB and the FJP as organizations may not be so clear. The MB/FJP may very hold a larger majority in the next parliament in the last but they will do so as the president’s party not as an independent political organization. The current MB and FJP leadership may yet some to regret his election and the Salafis whose disdain for hierarchical organization may regret it even more.