Arguably the most important event happened in Egypt over the weekend since former President Mubarak stepped down on February 11 of last year. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ordered the retirement of the top two military chiefs in Egypt, longtime Minister of Defense Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Enan, alongside the heads of each military branch. Additionally, he cancelled the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ supplement to the constitution, which had limited his presidential powers, and appointed reformist judge Mahmoud Mekki as Vice President. This stunning turn of events has left Morsi with an enormous amount of power, and left millions of Egyptians wondering if Morsi is trying to turn Egypt into a civilian controlled state, or if he is trying to completely entrench the Muslim Brotherhood in power.
To explain the importance of these steps, it first makes sense to understand more about Generals Tantawi and Enan. General Tantawi has been Minister of Defense for 20 years and in the wake of Mubarak’s departure, he headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military body tasked with ruling Egypt until a president was in place. His deputy, Chief of Staff Enan, said to be close to the American military, was widely viewed as being groomed to be his successor. Since Morsi was elected President, members of SCAF were clearly fearful he would obtain too much power, which led them to issue a constitutional declaration. This constitutional declaration not only gave them nearly unchecked power as a nearly separate part of the government, famously not allowing the incoming president to even declare war, but also gave them power to dismiss and create a Constituent Assembly to create Egypt’s new constitution.
In one fell swoop, not only did Morsi regain this lost power and dismiss his rivals in the SCAF, but he also gave himself the power to legislate in the absence of parliament, and crucially, gave himself the power to create a new Constituent Assembly, if the current body is not able to finish its work on time. The Constituent Assembly has a torturous history, with claims of Islamist dominance, especially by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom of Justice party, leading to calls for its dismissal and its eventual disbandment once already.
Morsi claims that his decision was “not meant to embarrass anyone,” and further retained Tantawi and Enan as advisors, which perhaps means they would be protected from prosecution for their mishandling of the transition. He has also been on something of a house cleaning spree lately, firing the Director of Intelligence and the Governor of North Sinai (also a General) in the wake of the deadly attacks there. Further, he has had broad support for the move, with Salafists, socialists parties, and even revolutionary activists in support of the move, all of whom have clashed with the SCAF during the transition period.
Finally, the move could be seen in several contexts, some frightening, and others political. A march is being planned against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood on August 24. Some in the organization, fearful of past military interference and domination of politics, were fearful that this, combined with violence in the Sinai, could give a cause for the military to retake power. The Muslim Brotherhood has struck back first, however, replacing the editors-in-chief at the state-owned media outlets and closing particularly anti-MB media companies.
What is worrying, however, is the reasoning that Morsi has given for each of these events. The closing of papers were based on the claim that they were inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood and in the case of the generals, because they had reached retirement age. While now banned host Tawfiq Okasha clearly crossed the line and Tantawi can only be described as antediluvian, Morsi’s absolute silence on attacks perpetrated against media outlets whom are opposed to the MB and his selective release of political prisoners is troubling, to say the least.
Further, his demagoguery, in particular calling on those who support his decision to protest in Tahrir Square, again has to make one call his motives into question. While I believe watching how the president deals with the rest of independent media as the bell weather as to his intentions, Morsi has struck a firm blow against the SCAF and for the Muslim Brotherhood.