Mursi stands up
Four weeks ago, the assumption was that the military would oust the newly elected president, but this week that same president removed the generals, reports Dina Ezzat
This week, Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected head of state, acted against the generals making up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in week six of his presidency. Mursi, also the country's first ever civilian president, comes from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood and took power on 30 June following a narrow electoral victory against one of the former aides of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
During his first days in office, Mursi was considered both inside and outside Egypt to be a weak president who might not make it through his four years in office. Having entered the presidential elections as the Muslim Brotherhood's second choice, its first choice having been disqualified for legal reasons, Mursi was seen by many as the man elected to ward off Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister, and prevent what would otherwise have been a defeat for the 25 January Revolution.
Mursi was seen as a man walking in the shadow of the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, to whom every member of the group owes loyalty, the Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, Khairat El-Shater, its original candidate for president, and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's former minister of defence, who refused to use the military against the demonstrators during the 25 January Revolution.
Tantawi had been running the country as head of the SCAF until power was transferred to the civilian president. However, this did not take place until the military had issued a "constitutional declaration" perceived across the political spectrum as limiting Mursi's power.
Before taking the presidential oath of office, Mursi officially resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood and from its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, which he had previously headed. In theory, this meant breaking his oath of loyalty to Badie, even if, as sources in the presidency and the Brotherhood have told Al-Ahram Weekly, Mursi still keeps in direct and indirect touch with Badie.
As for El-Shater, who had appeared with Mursi during the first days of the presidential campaign, he disappeared half-way through the election process, it being "Mursi who had asked the supreme guide to ask El-Shater to stay away, because he was offended at being called the 'Brotherhood's spare tyre,'" said a source from the group.
Once Mursi was in office, El-Shater disappeared, yet "the key members of Mursi's presidential campaign and of his current presidential team are originally from the campaign of El-Shater," commented a former member of the Brotherhood. Mursi and El-Shater keep in touch through these aides, and "when El-Shater went on a tour that included some Arab and Asian countries recently to try and attract investment to Egypt, he kept Mursi in the loop about his contacts and was supported with information from Mursi's office," he added.
In week three of his presidency, which should last four years according to the Constitutional Declaration issued by the SCAF in March last year, Mursi attempted to sideline Tantawi by issuing a decree calling for the parliament, dissolved in June by decree of the constitutional court, to reassemble. However, on this occasion the parliament only briefly reassembled, and "many of us thought that Mursi and the Brotherhood were not ready for a fight with the SCAF," one retired military source said. "Though it turned out that he was only waiting to attack again."
On Sunday, Mursi did attack, when the president, who had never really been accorded the treatment due to the country's military commander-in-chief, issued a decree ordering the retirement of Tantawi and the SCAF's second-in-command, Sami Anan. The two generals obeyed the decree, and they have accepted to act as advisors to the president.
The decree came against the backdrop of considerable disagreement between the two men, especially in relation to the management of the Rafah crisis following the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards while they were on duty on the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and Israel earlier this month. It also came following a presidential decree to remove the head of intelligence and several military generals.
Aides to the president say that he was disappointed at Tantawi's failure to act in line with a plan agreed by the president and the minister of defence regarding the security vacuum in Sinai. They also say that Mursi was angered by Tantawi's refusal to remove a second group of generals that the president had concluded had failed to live up to their responsibilities and had even been engaged in attempts to embarrass him personally.
The same aides say that a decision to allow Tantawi to retain his post as minister of defence and head of the SCAF pending the election of a new parliament and the formation of a new government later this year or early next year was taken some weeks ago, prior to the composition of Mursi's first cabinet and a few days before the Rafah attack.
However, Mursi had found it impossible to accept Tantawi's behaviour and had decided to act against him, the sources say, though accounts differ on when the decision to remove Tantawi and Anan was taken. Some sources say it was taken the day Mursi was unable to attend the funeral of the border guards in Cairo, seen as an affront to public opinion, while others say it was taken last Friday when Tantawi told Mursi that he would not dismiss the generals the president wanted to see removed.
On Saturday, Tantawi did not go to his office, and Anan was received by Mursi, being told that an announcement was going to be made "shortly". Both men "knew of the matter and the scheduled announcement", said Yasser Ali, official spokesman for the president, on Monday.
The move to remove Tantawi and Anan, Western diplomats in Cairo agree, was coordinated with Washington, which had originally proposed the retirement of the top SCAF generals in order to end the duality of power in Egypt. Today, the same diplomats are not concerned at the fate of the Armed Forces, considering that this is not threatened despite Tantawi's removal, but rather the fate of Mursi's presidency and the way in which it may now develop.
"What needs to be seen now is whether Mursi will turn into another Mubarak and into a dictator, though an Islamist rather than a military one," said one Cairo-based diplomat. With his decision to force the retirement of Tantawi and Anan, Mursi issued a set of decisions that made him not just the sole holder of executive power, but also the holder of legislative power pending the election of a new parliament. He also holds the reins of the new constitution, since he will be responsible for appointing a new drafting committee in line with Islamist tastes.
The same diplomat said that Mursi's holding of "too many prerogatives" is worrying, especially since they are held by a president who promised, but failed, to assemble elements from across the political spectrum in his government. This has "only two women, and one of them is a Copt, and she is the only non-Muslim in a government headed by an Islamist even if he is not a member of the Brotherhood," the diplomat said.
Mursi had earlier promised to have several vice presidents, including a woman and a Copt, but in fact he has only one more or less Islamist vice president, who is originally a policeman, and not a judge, and who is the brother of the minister of justice.
Fears at Mursi's turning into a dictator are not just current among Western diplomats observing the democratisation process in Egypt, but are also spreading among some non-Islamist politicians, who chose at the 11th hour to support Mursi against Shafik and who now say they fear he has already taken the path of excluding everyone other than "obedient Islamists", in the words of one politician.
The fact that journalists and TV anchors have been told they should scale down their criticisms of Mursi is also worrying, as is the fact that Mursi has decided to suspend his daily radio talk show in which he answered questions from the public. As a result, his decision to remove Tantawi and Anan, though it ends the duality of power in Egypt, could lead to much more than that.