Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Morsi’s Corrective Revolution

by Steven A. Cook
August 13, 2012

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan attend a meeting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces at the presidential palace in Cairo (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


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 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.



Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Nikos Retsos

    The story of Mohamed Morsi is a little simpler than described above. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the U.S. hunted Islamists across Middle East to prevent any Arab state from becoming another Iran. In that U.S. pursuit, the U.S. pushed Mubarak to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mr. Morsi ended up in prison. He became the “hunted!”

    With the Egyptian Revolution’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood won the parliamentary elections, but that election was outlawed by Mubarak cronies at the Egyptian Supreme Court. And when Mr. Morsi won the presidency, the Egyptian junta issued a degree limiting his powers. Fact: The Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary majority in parliament, and Mr. Morsi as president became, therefore, the “hounded” by the Mubarak’s allies still in key positions in the courts and the army.

    I believe Mr. Morsi decided it was time to become “the hunter,” and claim his legitimate authority, or fall like a hero – rather than stay in the presidential palace as a marionette president. He succeeded. His story, therefore, is a long ordeal from HUNTED, to HOUNDED, to HUNTER! That is certainly a heroic deed, and a win-win for the Egyptian people and their new democracy. Nikos Retsos, retired professor, Chicago

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    It should be clear that, even after new generals have taken oath, President Morsi has only won a battle. It is going to be a long war spread over many years.

    I would like to compare this incident with something that happened in Pakistan in October 1998. As many of you know, like Egyptian military, Pakistani military is the most powerful institution in the country and has ruled Pakistan for decades.

    Prime Minister Sharif won a big majority in the national election in 1997 and tried to make some radical changes next year. The Army Chief General Karamat called for a role for military in such decisions. PM Sharif didn’t like that and called for the resignation of the General Karamat. Sharif’s order was legal and constitutional. However, not many people expected General Karamat to resign on the orders of Prime Minister, but he did resign. A new Army Chief (General Musharraf) was appointed and he expressed his loyalty to the government. A lot of people then declared that people/parliament/elected officials are now supreme and military is out. However, less than year later, there was a coup, General Musharraf was running the country and Sharif was in jail, fighting a charge that carried death penalty.

    So, military should not be discounted, it is still the most powerful institution in Egypt and democracy is still fragile. Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) should tread softly and take very measured footsteps. They have won the first round but they are still the ‘hounded’. Their opponent is very experienced and is waiting for any mistakes. Morsi and MB should not be carried away by this. They should now consolidate and try to gather all the democratic forces, showing it is about democracy and not about MB.

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