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President Mohamed Morsy’s recent decision to force Egypt’s most prominent military leaders into retirement has been lauded as a major step toward the demilitarization of the Egyptian state. For some optimists, his decision represents the triumph of the revolution over its adversaries inside the military establishment. There is indeed little doubt that this event will prove monumental and may be the prelude to a new era in civil-military relations in Egypt.
At the same time, as compelling as it is to interpret these recent developments as a civilian coup against Egypt’s military rulers, there are some indications that they are the product of a movement within the military’s own ranks to avert an impending confrontation with civilian political forces and to reconfigure the army’s role in politics in a way that leaves its autonomy and long-term interests intact.
The immediate circumstances surrounding Morsy’s decisions remain clouded, and we are certainly learning new details as the situation unfolds. However, the context in which this event emerged is quite illuminating. Worthy of notice is that talk of overturning the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold over the presidency have intensified in recent weeks, particularly in light of calls for mass demonstrations on 24 August against what some have characterized “the Brotherhood’s rule.”
Leading these calls are figures close to the military, most notably talk show host Tawfiq Okasha and former MP Mostafa Bakry, who in the past have seized every possible opportunity to support, justify and promote the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ position throughout the post-Mubarak era.
Calls for protests circulating in online forums have reportedly included threats to burn down the Brotherhood’s offices throughout Egypt. Former MP Mohamed Abou Hamed, one of the vocal supporters of the call for protest, went as far as saying that 24 August would not simply be a million-person rally, but rather a real revolution akin to the events of 25 January last year. Interestingly, calls for bringing down the “Brothers’ rule” coincided with (now former) Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi’s public statement on 15 July that the military would not allow for any “one faction” to rule over Egypt, in a clear warning against the Brotherhood’s dominance of the political arena.
These trends, coupled with the developments that followed, signal that some military leaders may have been prodding their allies among opinion shapers and friendly media outlets to promote the image of popular support for a coup d’etat against the Brotherhood. There is even evidence that the some leaders within the military have actively tried to undermine Morsy’s performance in public eyes, possibly to give pro-coup voices further ammunition in the run-up to 24 August.
For instance, while Morsy was participating in an African Union summit in Ethiopia in mid-July, military police forces withdrew from their security posts at public hospitals under vague circumstances. Their withdrawal paved the way for attacks by thugs, and for subsequent strikes by hospital personnel who were aggrieved by the absence of security, not to mention public criticism of Morsy for “failing” to deliver on his promise to bring back security to Egyptian streets.
While it is easy for many analysts to dismiss these patterns as yet another manifestation of government incompetence, accompanied by Okasha’s usual sensationalist bluffing, it seems that some leaders within the security sector have took these developments seriously. Last week, Egyptian authorities suspended Okasha’s television station and began investigating him for allegations of “inciting his viewers to attempt to murder President Mohamed Morsy and of supporting a military coup d’etat.”
On Saturday, copies of Al-Dostour were confiscated after the newspaper ran a series of headlines that warned against the Islamization of the state by the Brotherhood, and, in so many words, called for a coup against Morsy. The last of a series of headlines on the newspaper’s front page read:
“Saving Egypt from the coming destruction will not happen without the unity of the army and the people, the formation of a national salvation front consisting of political and military leaders, and the upholding an unequivocally civil state with military protection, exactly like the Turkish system…If this does not happen in the next few days, Egypt will fall and collapse, and we will regret [wasting] the days that remain before a new constitution is announced…People’s peaceful protest is imperative and a national duty, until the army responds and announces its support for the people.”
These developments suggest the recent upsurge in public calls for a coup by pro-military figures mirrors an inclination on the part of some senior SCAF leaders to prepare for a series of steps to undermine, if not completely sideline, Morsy’s presidency. Such an inclination is not surprising, given that it was embarrassingly clear to the public that SCAF leaders, particularly Tantawi, seemed uneasy with the idea of showing any hint that they were accountable to civilian leadership.
Not only was Tantawi keen on being portrayed in public as the country’s co-president, but it was reported that he had refused to attend Cabinet meetings chaired by newly appointed Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to avoid any insinuation that he answers to a civilian leader. It could also be that Tantawi and others felt compelled to undermine Morsy’s presidency after sensing the elected president is beginning to gain the acceptance of other senior military leaders, and that they were willing to concede more powers to him than the military’s conservative guard would like.
The ensuing response of other military officers was to help eject their imprudent leaders out of fear that the commitment of their superiors to prolonging their fight with the Brotherhood could drag military forces back into a stalemate with anti-SCAF popular mobilization and greatly weaken the military’s grip over its long-standing political and economic privileges. It was not surprising, therefore, to learn from presidential palace insiders that Tantawi and Sami Anan, the former armed forces chief of staff, were surprised when they learned they had been sacked.
In other words, what we have observed on 12 August was not a coup, per se, but a preemptive coup aimed at preventing a serious political — and potentially physical — confrontation between the military and the Brotherhood, and a possible new wave of anti-SCAF popular mobilization.
The way these events have unfolded further suggest it is highly unlikely that Morsy or the Brotherhood could have led this initiative single-handedly, without the support, if not the leadership, of senior military officials. For starters, SCAF member General Mohamed al-Assar, who was rewarded in the recent reshuffle, was quick to tell media outlets shortly after Morsy’s decision was announced that the president had in fact consulted with military leaders before retiring Anan and Tantawi.
It is also hard to imagine that state TV officials would have agreed to air news of such thorny decisions without some assurance that the relevant wielders of power inside the military establishment are on board and that they would not be reprimanded for any wrongdoing. Additionally, the honorable exit awarded to Tantawi and Anan, who were both granted state honors and presidential advisory appointments, suggest that a friendly military hand was involved in ensuring that Morsy’s decision would signal that military leaders are to be respected and revered in the public eye, notwithstanding political differences.
More importantly, such an honorable exit may also signify an attempt by incumbent officers to send the unequivocal (and self-serving) message that the era of public humiliation of military leaders and their prosecution for past wrongdoing has not started, and perhaps never will.
There are other reasons to believe that the recent reshuffles are not part of a purely civilian coup led by Morsy. Such an exceptionally daring and high-risk move is not consistent with the rather cautious tendencies that the Brotherhood and its leaders have exhibited over the past year and a half, as well as its seeming pragmatism in accommodating military generals who have long held the power to overturn the Brotherhood’s political gains.
It is difficult to imagine Morsy deciding to sack military leaders without some assurance that other officers would support such a decision and not take the side of their superiors against the president. In fact, days before the recent reshuffle, Morsy implicitly recognized military leaders’ autonomy in managing their own affairs as per the controversial 17 June supplement to the Constitutional Declaration, by tasking Tantawi to replace Hamdy Badeen, commander of the military police, instead of doing so himself.
The way the decision was framed reflects a conservative interpretation of the declaration, specifically one that obligates the president to defer to the officers on senior military appointments. This is hardly the behavior of a leader who is preparing for a full-fledged confrontation with the SCAF. Rather, this shows that until very recently, Morsy was still playing by the SCAF-dictated rules of the game, and there were no signs that he was in fact planning to “go to the mattresses.”
What seemed to have changed on 12 August is that SCAF ceased to be a unitary actor, and support among senior military figures, such as new Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and General Mohamed al-Assar, for a leadership change within their own ranks became more decisive. These officials, who would later be rewarded in the ensuing reshuffle, probably feared Tantawi and Anan were poised to pull the military into further confrontations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-SCAF political forces, through the orchestration of a possible coup d’etat.
Such a prospect would not only prolong the military’s highly taxing and unpopular role in governing Egypt and managing the country’s transition, but could also jeopardize the institution’s long-term political and economic interests. Revolting against elected officials could lead to international isolation and possibly strained relations with Washington, which continues to provide Egypt with an annual US$1.3 billion in military assistance.
Moreover, entering into an uncertain confrontation with popular mobilization raises a host of unpleasant questions about the future of the military’s long-standing privileges — not to mention the institution’s coherence and integrity — should SCAF leaders suffer a defeat a la 11 February 2011.
Heightening these fears is that the image of the military has suffered greatly after the recent attacks by militant groups against Egyptian troops in Sinai, where the army is still engaged in many unresolved battles. Thus the preemptive coup coalition opted to save the military by cooperating with Morsy in taking steps to sideline their leaders and preclude any prospect for deepening the military’s role in the political sphere.
Although it remains unclear what these developments signify for the future of Egypt’s still ongoing struggle for revolutionary change, a number of preliminary observations are in order.
Firstly, to repeat one of the major lessons of the last year’s eighteen-day uprising, personnel reshuffles and meaningful institutional change are not one and the same. Simply that the military has undergone an internal purge and conceded presidential and legislative powers to Morsy on paper does not necessarily mean the institution is ready to give up its long-standing privileges. These include the undue power the military enjoys in shaping defense and national security policy, as well as the political and financial autonomy of its operations, budget and its vast revenue-generating economic empire from elected civilian institutions and public accountability. In fact, the military’s recent concessions to civilian leaders may have been aimed at protecting these very privileges, not giving them up. In other words, there may be a long road ahead in the quest for meaningful civilian oversight of military institutions and leaders.
Secondly, civilian control of the military is but one of many obstacles that Morsy faces in asserting his authority over state institutions, in which anti-reform elements will likely continue to resist democratic oversight and accountability. For example, contrary to popular belief, the military is not the only government bureaucracy that engages in revenue-generating activities that remain beyond the reach of elected institutions.
Egyptian bureaucracies are padded with a variety of off-budget private funds, which generate an estimated LE100 billion every year, or twenty percent of the country’s official government spending in the fiscal year 2011/12. What this means is that inside every bureaucracy, civilian or military, is a “mini-SCAF” that is predisposed to protect its financial autonomy and anti-democratic privileges from elected leaders. Whether Morsy will choose to confront or accommodate entrenched bureaucratic powers inside other state institutions remains to be seen.
Finally, and most importantly, Egypt’s still inconclusive struggle for revolutionary change cannot be reduced to power politics between the military and the Brotherhood. While bringing the military under the control of truly accountable civilian officials may be one important step toward achieving “bread, freedom and social justice,” it is certainly not enough. For those who believe that the January 25 Revolution was a call for a more humane contract between Egyptians and their rulers, and a demand for a responsive and just state that delivers to its own people, it seems that the real battle is far from over.
Hesham Sallam is co-editor of Jadaliyya and PhD candidate in government at Georgetown University.
[A version of this piece is due to appear in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.]