Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is now “officially in power,” declared the independent Al-Watan daily, as President Mohamed Morsi “consolidated power with stunning speed and shrewdness” by removing senior generals from office and assuming full executive power.
But the Islamist leader’s move has divided analysts and activists alike, with some welcoming the curbing of military power as a sign of progress in the country’s troubled democratic transition, while others fear the military’s political diminution may remove one of the few obstacles to the Brotherhood monopolizing political power.
“There was a bet in the past on the military being the guarantor of the civilian state,” said Hisham Kassem, a Cairo-based publisher and democracy advocate. “This is no longer the case.”
Former liberal MP Amr Hamzawy said that “Morsi’s decisions are going in the right direction and ends the site of the undemocratic junta,” Daily News Egypt reports.
But he called on Morsi to develop a national consensus to resolve the current constitutional impasse, warning that the president’s “consolidation of both legislative and executive powers is unacceptable and raises further concerns over the monopolization of power by one faction.”
The Brotherhood is quietly pursuing its long-established gradualist strategy of an incremental march through Egypt’s political institutions, some observers believe.
“They had to make sure that the media is in their hands and that the army is under their control before they go and make major changes in the Ministry of Justice and in the justice system,” says Mamdouh Hamza, a leading businessman and pro-democracy advocate. “The next step will be the new constitution.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t do anything off the cuff. Everything is according to plan and may be known for a few months before,” Hamza says.
Morsi’s move at least ends a debilitating stalemate, said Emad Shahin, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo.
“The negotiation process over the last year and a half was not working. It’s not producing results,” Shahin tells the New York Times:
Morsi struck a bargain with the younger officers, he might have enhanced his credibility with political forces outside the Brotherhood who had clamored for an end to military rule. At the same time, he could gain a degree of loyalty from a cast of officers who owe their new prominence to him. ….[Shahin] said the younger generation of military leaders, recognizing that fact, might have welcomed the change in leadership. They included Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, whom Mr. Morsi named as Field Marshal Tantawi’s replacement.
“I see tons of reasons why Sisi should cooperate,” Shahin says. “If I were in Sisi’s shoes, I would say, ‘Maybe if we remove these stubborn generals, something will happen.’ ”
The military reshuffling occurred “mostly within the logic of promotion typical of the Egyptian military (i.e., no people were suddenly dropped into the senior ranks from lower ranks or outside the senior staff),” according to The Arabist blogger and analyst Issandr el-Amrani.
“The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity.”
The killing of Egyptian troops by jihadists in Sinai was another catalyst for discontented young officers.
“This is definitely a failure of the military institution to uphold its responsibility,” Shahin said.
The removal of several leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces represents a negotiated “safe exit” for military leaders in the wake of the security scandal in the Sinai Peninsula, observers suggest
“It’s obvious SCAF can’t keep up with Sinai and the political situation [at the same time],” said Kassem.
He is disturbed at the prospects of “full executive, legislative and constitutional powers being held by an unpredictable president, backed by the powerful and often opaque, Brotherhood.”
“His legislative power should be withdrawn immediately, or he will be the most powerful and most dangerous president Egypt has ever had,” Kassem said. “Not even Gamal Abdel Nasser had this kind of power.”
But some analysts and secular activists welcomed Morsi’s consolidation of power.
“This is the outcome of revolution: for the first time ever the people are now part of the political equation,” said political analyst Rabab al-Mahdi. “For the first time there is a ruler who can claim legitimacy through the ballot box and he is using this legitimacy.”
“This is an extremely positive step,” said Wael Khalil, a prominent blogger. “It is historic. This way we have established that those backed by votes possess more political authority than those who have weapons.”
“This goes beyond Morsi. It is important for the political future of the country. We were in danger of having a sham democracy. The prospect of a duality of power between the Brotherhood and the military was disturbing.”
While Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei described Morsi’s move against the military as “a step in the right direction,” he cautioned that as the concentration of legislative and executive powers in the hands of the president was at odds with core principles of democracy, it should only be a temporary arrangement.
Other observers believe the military will continue to exercise influence and act as a check on the Islamists’ consolidation of power.
“Will the military leave completely…? I don’t think so,” said Mona Makram Obeid, a member of a civilian advisory council that consults with the military. “They have the economic power, they have the military power and they have, no matter what, the love and respect of the great majority of the people.”
Morsi’s maneuver is probably only the latest in a series of conflicts that will shape Egypt’s future, says a leading analyst.
“There’s still a battle to be fought over the new Egyptian constitution, new parliamentary elections after that,” says Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East. “And it’s really hard to say whether the military will reassert itself. It still has a lot of economic power. And so I think the struggle for power between the civil and the military in Egypt is far from over.”
Recent developments seem to confirm that the secular democrats and liberals who launched Egypt’s revolution are increasingly sidelined.
“What it means is that the Brotherhood is going to be able to dominate yet another aspect of Egypt’s political transition, unchecked,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“At this point Egypt’s revolt has become a revolution, because a new group has asserted total power. But I certainly don’t think it is completely settled,” he tells McClatchy.
Other experts believe the armed forces are more concerned to defend their economic interests than safeguard the transition or constitution.
“This seems to be a move to preserve the military’s long-standing privileges as opposed to a move to back the military’s purely national defense mission,” said Hisham Sallam, an editor at the Middle East blog Jadalliya.
“I would love to believe that this is a step in the transition toward democracy, but I’m very apprehensive,” said Nora Soliman, one of the founders of the liberal Justice Party. “They have control over most of the levers of power.”
Soliman said she was no fan of the country’s generals but saw them as a necessary evil during Egypt’s democratic transition “to get Morsi out if he did something absolutely contrary to the nature of the state,” she tells the Washington Post:
Analysts say the absence of Islamist rhetoric during Morsi’s time in office and the relatively few high-profile Islamists he has appointed to key jobs are reasons he has been successful in restoring the far-reaching powers of the presidency. In addition to dismissing top generals Sunday, Morsi also nullified a decree that would have substantially weakened his office by giving the military council final say over security matters.
“He has moved up people from within the organizations and people who seem well qualified for the position,” said Dunne, a board member of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy. “It was pretty well thought out.”
The weekend’s power shift “seems like a mix of a civilian counter-coup and a coordinated coup within the military itself,” said Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Doha Center.
“There are some members of the SCAF who helped Mr. Morsi to do this, and they will now be beholden to him and owe their positions to his administration,” he told the Economist. “What we’re going to see is a temporary accommodation in the short-term. But the institutional struggle between the military and the Brotherhood will continue.”
“Egypt’s strategic partners were certainly concerned about the duality of power in Egypt, so there had to be a consolidation of power within one institution and normally it had to be the elected one,” said Lina Attalah, editor of the Egypt Independent. “I imagine the move was well supported if not blessed by strategic partners because it has been so messy in Egypt amidst two contesting powers and what happened in Sinai served as an index for this state failure.”
“The Morsi move is well calculated in that it’s not a hard coup against the military nor an attempt to end the military legacy in Egypt,” she said, “It’s the replacement of a critical rank, the kind of personnel who are in charge of critical elements in the military such as weaponry and intelligence. It’s a very tactical move.”
The Brotherhood’s power-play only confirms the Islamists’ growing political hegemony, observers suggest.
“A close observation of the sequence of events within the past 18 months reveals that the balance of power between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood had actually been in favour of the latter,” said political analyst Ayman El-Sayyad. “And the Brotherhood has reaped the benefits of its being on the stronger end of the rope when Morsi took office.”
“The decisions have effectively ended the ongoing power struggle between Egypt’s presidency and the military,” he said. “All accountability now falls on the president alone.”
“The nullification of the [SCAF's 18 June constitutional] addendum – which had many problems and restricted the president’s authorities – was an even more important decision than the military and security reshuffles,” added El-Sayyad. “The abrogation of the addendum and the modification of the [SCAF's 30 March] Constitutional Declaration effectively eliminated the SCAF’s political jurisdiction.”
But the president’s decision has disturbing implications for Egypt’s democratic transition, says Kassem.
“Normally, I would have been thrilled that an end has come to military rule, given that the military is now accountable to civilian authority,” Kassem tells VOA. “However, I am quite disturbed by what is coming: the (Muslim) Brotherhood entrenching themselves in power to this extent.”
Morsi’s decisions may establish “a new modus vivendi” between the Brotherhood and the army, observers suggest. The arrangement has been welcomed by investors, but analysts fear that a $2bn loan from Qatar will “not be enough to plug Egypt’s large and growing external and fiscal financing needs” but “it will certainly help shore up dwindling reserves and give further room to man oeuvre to the authorities to secure other sources of financing, including through the acceleration of talks with the IMF and other donors in the coming weeks.”
“A key issue is that the army had very specific demands with a minimum and a maximum,” said Omar Ashour, a professor at Exeter University and visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center.
“This is the difference between Tantawi and al-Sisi. The former was going for the maximum and he wanted to draw the boundaries of the political landscape, whereas al-Sisi has gone for a minimum – a veto in high politics and on sensitive foreign policy issues such as relations with Iran or Israel.”
One clue to the nature of the agreement seems to be the survival of the National Defence Council, a body created by the military in June to make decisions on vital security issues. It is headed by the president, but soldiers outnumber civilians on it. In what could be seen as a concession to the military, Mr Morsi has not abolished this council.
“Morsi’s power struggle with the military continues, but this is the first time in Egyptian history that an elected civilian overrules and sacks generals,” says Ashour, who is currently in Cairo. “It tips the balance that was ingrained in Egypt since 1952 towards civilian authority.”
He expects the Brotherhood and military to negotiate a new form of political cohabitation.
“I think there is a minimum for the military establishment,” he said.“They want a veto in sensitive foreign policy issues, including on Israel and Iran — any policy that can implicate the country in a foreign confrontation. They will want to negotiate the independence of their economic empire.”
“Sisi was inclined to accept minimum, as opposed to what Enan and the field marshal were asking for, which was more or less the power of the Algerian military, combined with the legitimacy of the Turkish military,” Mr. Ashour said, referring to the broad political powers seized by Algeria’s generals in the 1990s and the Turkish military’s interventions in domestic politics. It remains to be seen whether a new formula will greatly alter the dynamic between Egypt’s military and civilian authorities.
“Is this going to be another partition of the military and civilian spheres, with a new group in charge of the military sphere?” asked Robert Springborg, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and an expert on the Egyptian military.
“Is the Brotherhood taking control of the military? Or is it the beginning of democratic control?” he said.
“I think the new commanders will have some demands,” said Ashour. “Morsi won a battle but not the war.”
Morsi’s power grab provides five key lessons about Egypt’s transition, writes Time’s Tony Karon, including the confirmation that the country’s institutions are weak and lack legitimacy:
There’s no constitution, and a democratically elected parliament has been dissolved by a Mubarak-appointed judiciary that sought explicitly to limit the power of elected institutions in favor of military control. Between them the generals and the judges sought to make nonsense of democratically elected institutions and enfeeble the presidency while executive power in the hands of SCAF. Now, Morsi seems to have struck back, but many fear he’s playing the same game, the rules of which are not entirely clear.
“Morsi acted extra-legally,” says Michael Hanna, an analyst with the Century Foundation. “That’s not a moral or political judgment — revolutions often involve upending the existing legal political frameworks. And the one he was overturning was also established extralegally by the SCAF. The point is that Egypt’s institutions have been weakened to the point that there’s no institution adjudicating the battle for power. The result, until now, has been a series of competing power grabs between the generals and the Muslim Brothers.”
But, he warns, the political tug of war between these rival power centers does little to build and legitimize the institutions necessary for a democratic transition:
“Those seeking to build a stable democratic Egypt shouldn’t feel more comfortable with President Morsi amassing overwhelming executive authority over the political and constitutional process than they have been with the SCAF amassing that same authority.”
The weekend’s developments confirm that “the current phase of Egyptian politics is going to be a long, grinding institutional war of position,” says George Washington University’s Marc Lynch:
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”
But Egyptian liberals fear that the Brotherhood’s consolidation of power will tilt the political playing field to their advantage in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
“I don’t think other parties will have a good chance in the next parliamentary election,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic party.
“They will exert pressures like in the days of Mubarak. In the previous election, even when they were not in power, they used religion in their campaigning in breach of the electoral law and tried to influence voters waiting in line to cast their ballots. They were doing this when they were not in power, what will it be like now?”
His concerns are shared by Kassem, a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.
“His legislative power should be withdrawn immediately, or he will be the most powerful and most dangerous president Egypt has ever had,” Kassem said.
“Not even Gamal Abdel Nasser had this kind of power,” he said, referring to Egypt’s first military president in 1952, and who kicked-off 60 some years of martial rule.
Liberal and secular political forces have long decried the Brotherhood’s attempts, through the parliament, to mold the constitution as a primarily Islamist document. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party currently dominates the constitution-writing committee. And if Morsi retains the current powers he usurped from SCAF, he himself will have the ability to submit disputed sections of the text to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
“[The court] also has the power to investigate the constitutionality of any legislation issued by Morsi, but whether or not they do it remains to be seen,” Kassem said.
“The country is boiling,” he said. “And unfortunately we can’t enjoy the end of military rule with a dangerous Islamist president in power.”