President Morsy reconfigures relations with the generals

The Sinai crisis has handed Egypt’s new president Mohamed Morsy the chance to consolidate his grip on power by reconfiguring his relationship with the military.

Three days after militants in North Sinai killed 16 border police and attempted to launch attacks in Israel, President Morsy on Sunday fired Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

The powerful field marshal was Egypt’s post-Mubarak de facto ruler, assuming executive and legislative powers as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

It was the boldest move yet by the president to reclaim powers grabbed by the military council.

President Morsy also fired the armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan and the head of every service of the military.

This is a major win for Morsy. The Muslim Brotherhood president has been locked in a power struggle with the Tantawi-led Scaf and the Judiciary since taking office.

However, it is unlikely that this decision was unilateral; the president must have consulted widely within the military establishment, including with the field marshal himself to secure military support.

According to the deputy defence minister Gen Mohamed el-Assar, "the decision was based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council".

Tantawi’s exit was inevitable. He is not popular with Egyptians and many see him as the stumbling block to meaningful political reforms promised by the revolution.

Power grab

The fired generals were replaced by their deputies and the new military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was picked from the military council.

Scaf would not have sanctioned any appointments outside its ranks. The new military chiefs had to be Mubarak-era generals and their appointment did not generate enthusiasm from the Egyptian people.

It might be argued that the president appears to have gained some control over the military since the new chiefs will owe their careers to him.

The military has been at the helm of Egyptian politics since the 1952 coup carried out by the ‘Free Officers’ led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. President Morsy’s move on the generals challenges the assumption that an elected president cannot govern Egypt with the military locked up in the barracks and excluded from politics.

It is a bold attempt at reconfiguring civil-military relations in Egypt, a real shot at placing the armed forces under civilian control.

The president’s strategy seems to be to ensure the loyalty of the military chiefs rather than reforming the armed forces immediately.

Morsy is a pragmatist. Attempting to reform the military will be starting a war he knows very well he can’t win, so he focuses on his strengths – riding on the widespread sentiments in Egypt against continued military rule and also the Sinai episode which gave him the opportunity to pull a fast one on top military chiefs.


He also made another bold move to reclaim his powers from the military council by decreeing null and void the constitutional declaration limiting the president’s powers and announced that he has assumed the executive and legislative powers previously held by SCAF. On paper, these powers make him impregnable.

The military junta had overshadowed Morsy’s rule by restricting the president’s role in public policy, budgeting and the writing of a new constitution.

If the laws that prosecuted Mubarak were to be applied, many argue, the fired military chiefs would be in jail.

However, it appears the military chiefs struck a deal with Morsy for immunity from prosecutions for their actions during the transition.

President Morsy retained Field Marshal Tantawi and the armed forces chief of staff Sami Anan as presidential advisors as both were awarded Egypt’s highest state honour – the Order of the Nile. One fired general was appointed minister for military production.

We will definitely be able to fully analyse the importance of President Morsy’s changes in the military and the cancellation of the decree limiting presidential powers as events unfold this week.

Has the move significantly shifted the balance of power from the generals to the elected government?

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