It is fair to say that Egypt continues to be interesting. Yesterday, President Mohammed Morsi announced the retirements of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Anan, which come just a few days after he sacked Egypt’s intelligence chief, the governor of North Sinai, and the head of the Military Police. What is happening here? Speculation is rampant. Was Morsi’s shake-up the result of plotting within the military’s own ranks, revealing a much-rumored split within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces? Does kicking Tantawi and Anan upstairs—they will both serve as advisors to the president—constitute a Muslim Brotherhood coup? Both scenarios are possible, but it is more likely that Morsi is doing precisely what he seems to be doing: consolidating his power.
As I wrote in Foreign Policy.com last week, the x-factor in Morsi’s actions are the implications that sacking the top brass will have for civil-military relations in Egypt. It should be clear by now that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ vision for itself as an autonomous military establishment beyond civilian control contradicts Egyptians’ desire to build a democratic state. Yet Morsi’s actions raise an important question: Is he taming the military as an organization or is he pushing out Tantawi, Anan, and the others he dismissed last week in another round of the titanic political struggle among the political and military elite? If it is the former, it is an important step in changing the overall balance of civil-military relations in Egypt that is more favorable to the emergence of a democratic political system—though that outcome is far from guaranteed. If Morsi’s bold move against the top officers is the latter, there may be a moment of civilian supremacy, but the military may very well remain a critical political actor.
Thus far, it is hard to draw any conclusion as much depends on Morsi’s next move. At first glance, it is tempting to hear historical echoes of Anwar Sadat’s solidification of power in May 1971 when he out-maneuvered his opponents within the Arab Socialist Union and the military in one fell swoop. Sadat’s success was, however, dependent on the loyalty of a group of military officers below Minister of Defense General Mohamed Fawzi, which was secured through promises of promotion. A similar dynamic seems to be underway with the elevation of Major General Abdel Fattah al Sissi as Tantawi’s replacement and the appointment of Lieutenant General Sidki Sayed Ahmed as the new armed forces chief of staff. Presumably, Morsi has secured the loyalty of these officers and Egypt’s powerful field commanders in the process of moving Tantawi and Anan up and out, indicating that the military remains a critical pillar of support.
At the same time, it is easy to draw the parallels of Sadat’s “Corrective Revolution” too literally. The critical difference between 1971 and 2012 is the very fact that Morsi can claim popular legitimacy and a mandate by dint of his election. There are, of course, a good many Egyptians who do not believe the election was credible, but that does not preclude the fact that Morsi clearly has a reservoir of popular support from which he draws to advance his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda. As a result, Morsi can claim—without stretching credulity—that his national security and defense shake-up was done in the name of building a “civil state.” To the extent that this idea has currency within the Egyptian population and the new president enjoys the legitimacy of being the first popularly elected president, Morsi has an opportunity to alter the historic role of the armed forces in Egypt politics.