Behind the scenes
Protocol cannot disguise the conflict brewing between the presidency and SCAF
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Mursi and Tantawi during the graduation ceremony of students of the Military Academy
On Tuesday President Mohamed Mursi joined Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), at the graduation of students of the Military Academy, reports Dina Ezzat. As has been the case since the beginning of the annual round of graduations at police and army institutes, Tantawi, minister of defence before and after the 25 January Revolution, was present to receive Mursi upon his arrival to the academy, and duly walked behind the president following the end of the graduation ceremony.
There was little in the observation of protocol to suggest the tensions underlying the relationship between Egypt's first non-military president and the country's top brass. But though the outward form may be the same, things could not be more different than they were under Mubarak.
"Obviously things have changed. Mubarak was commander in chief. With Mursi it is not clear whether he is or is not. The only thing we know is that there is only one reference now to the top hierarchy of the military and it's to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the general commander," said a military source speaking on condition of anonymity.
The constitutional addendum issued days before the announcement of Mohamed Mursi's presidential election victory removed control of the military from the presidency. Under the controversial annex, rejected, at times defied but never annulled by Mursi, SCAF runs the military.
Yet in his remarks at the Military Academy Mursi decided to say what has hitherto been unsaid. He insisted the military was part of the executive.
"The Armed Forces constitute one of the most important establishments of the executive authority," said Mursi, implying that as head of the executive the military falls under his jurisdiction, whether SCAF likes it or not.
Mursi's comments did not prompt as much as a blink from either Tantawi or his deputy Sami Anan. They were equally unresponsive to the praise Mursi offered the Armed Forces at the beginning and end of his speech.
"The Armed Forces, its leadership and its soldiers, have truly proved to be at the disposal of the people, acting as the solid shield, the firm sword and alert brain of the people," Mursi said. The president's comments, claimed one of his aides, reflected Mursi's belief that as head of state he has a responsibility to maintain army morale.
Though it is not the first time Mursi has expressed his appreciation of the military, such repeated comments are unable to paper over the widening cracks between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from whose ranks Mursi emerged.
"The bottom line is that the army will not allow Mursi, a civilian who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, to be its head. This is the real bone of contention," says political scientist and commentator Amr El-Shobaki.
"Whatever noises this side or that side makes about mutual respect and so on the fact is there is a profound disagreement between SCAF and the president".
It is focussed, says El-Shobaki, on the constitutional addendum which did two things: it entrusted SCAF with legislative prerogatives in the wake of a Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) judgement dissolving the People's Assembly, and it denied Mursi any power over the army.
The disagreement recently assumed a legal face. Mursi issued a decree reconvening the People's Assembly, only to be overruled by the SCC.
"But this president versus the judiciary is not the real battle for Mursi. His real conflict is with SCAF and it centres on who controls the army."
According to El-Shobaki, SCAF would have no real objection to abandon the legislative powers it grabbed through issuing the constitutional appendix. What it refuses to do is hand control of the army to "a civilian from the Muslim Brotherhood".
Ironically, argues El-Shobaki, Mursi might be in a weaker position in his battle with the judiciary than with SCAF. As head of the executive Mursi has no power to overrule the judiciary whereas as head of state he is in a position, in theory at least, to demand control of the army.
Aides to Mursi and advisors to SCAF are both convinced they will win out in the end.
"At the end of the day there is one president, a democratically elected president, and he is Mohamed Mursi," said one of the president's aides. "The president respects the military and respects the role it has played, and will continue to play, protecting the interests of the nation but he remains the president and he is not willing to undermine his authority."
"It is true that the vast majority of the Armed Forces are devout Muslims but this does not mean that a Muslim Brotherhood president can head the military," said one advisor to SCAF. "The transition is still ongoing. We have to wait and see how it concludes."
Some constitutional experts argue that once a new constitution is in place Mursi will have to resign and new presidential elections held.
"That's not going to happen," insists the presidential aide. "The president has a four-year mandate which he will complete and, with the help of God, run for another term."
In the meantime the new president, arrested while participating in anti-Mubarak demonstrations on 28 January 2011, must continue to work on securing the support of the presidential establishment, a predominantly military body, and a host of security and intelligence apparatuses that have hitherto worked on the basic assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood constituted Egypt's greatest domestic threat.