A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 13, 2012

Morsi and SCAF: The Stunning Move

I'm on vacation, and a long way from Washington (or Cairo), in both geography and mental attitude. But Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi apparently isn't taking time off. Accordingly, I'm bumping the pre-prepared vacation postings I had ready, including Part 2 of the Aramaic vs. Coptic series, by a day or so in order to comment on the developments in Egypt. All of the pre-prepared posts, which were deliberately not time-constrained, will appear soon.

Where to begin? As I note above, I'm writing this on vacation, holed away in a cabin in the mountains of northern Georgia, and I'm not even getting a cell phone signal unless I go to the main road, though I do have stable Internet. So I hope what follows hasn't missed some major piece of information that invalidates my impressions. 

Let's start with the short version:

The Good News:  Morsi has directly challenged the military's neutering of the President's powers and, if he gets away with it, as he seems to be, subordinated the military to elected civilian authority. Even for those opposed to Morsi's agenda, that is a victory for an elected civilian over the un-elected military. Liberal figures (including many who don't trust Morsi) are praising him for that.

The Bad News: Again if he gets away with it, in the absence of an elected Parliament and with no constitution clearly in force, a victory over SCAF could leave Morsi with no checks or balances to Presidential power. He may be a fairly elected President, but if given unrestricted power he could be as dictatorial as Husni Mubarak, though with a very different agenda.

Now some further thoughts. As of this morning the indications are that this is proving to be a popuilar move. That makes it more likely it cannot be reversed through some sort of military intervention. More to the point, Morsi — whose tenure so far had been full of fumbles — seems to have finessed this one, apparently moving only after preparing the ground by negotiating with the younger members of SCAF. And, as Issandr El Amrani cogently notes, he has maintained the normal order of promotion, so that the second echelon has little to complain about from the retirement of the first.  In short, he did not attack the military institution, or the officer corps as an institution,  he only retired the individuals in senior command, Defense Minister Tantawi, Army Chief Enan, and the commanders of the Navy, Air Force and Air Defense Forces.

Generally he did not promote out of normal order, so he cannot be accused (though he will be anyway) of favoring Muslim Brotherhood officers. On the other hand, some of the promotions do show forethought. The promotion of Military Intelligence chief  Gen. Abd al-Fattah Sisi to the Defense Ministry only days after retiring General Intelligence chief Murad Mowafi, may show a tilt away from the once powerful General Intelligence Directorate and towards Military Intelligence, And the fact that one key SCAF member, Gen. Muhammad al-Assar, was retained and promoted is of interest, as he is the Defense Ministry's American liaison. His retention may help assure the US supports the changes. (It will also fuel the conspiracy theorists — a mix of the American right wing and the Egyptian left wing — who think that the US supports the Muslim Brotherhood).

It was a stunning move and still may lead to a confrontation with the Supreme Constitutional Court, though the appointment of a respected jurist as Vice President may be intended to pre-empt that. Morsi has apparently kept the Army as a whole on board by retiring the senior generals with respect (Tantawi and Enan get the Order of the Nile, jobs as Presidential Advisers, and, implicitly, immunity from prosecution for actions during the transitional period; the second echelon stays loyal as they become the first echelon, speeded by the long-overdue retirement of Tantawi and the early retirement of the others; but the military has clearly been subordinated to the civilian sphere.

Or at least that's how it looks so far.

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