Consecrating the pharaoh
President Mohamed Mursi now enjoys the powers of an absolute dictator. What will he do with them, asks Gamal Essam El-Din
Egypt's civilian president, Mohamed Mursi, moved on more than one front this week to consolidate his powers.
On 12 August Mursi ordered the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 76, the Mubarak-era minister of defence and, post Mubarak's ouster, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), along with the army's chief of staff Sami Anan and several other generals.
Tantawi and Anan are being retained as presidential advisers. On Tuesday Tantawi was awarded the Nile Medal, Anan the Medal of the Republic.
The new minister of defence is Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, 58, the hitherto low-profile chief of military intelligence. El-Sisi also takes over as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.
Major General Sedqi Sobhi, 59, becomes the new chief of military of staff, promoted from his post as head of the Third Field Army responsible for the Suez Canal and Sinai. SCAF member Mohamed El-Assar becomes assistant minister of defence. El-Assar is the army's main conduit for US-Egyptian military cooperation.
Mursi also removed Mohamed Mimish as commander-in-chief of the navy, appointing him chairman of Suez Canal Authority. Abdel-Aziz Seif appointed as chairman of the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation.
Mursi also selected the reformist judge Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president. Mekki is thought to have been recommended for the post by his brother Ahmed, the newly-appointed minister of justice.
Mahmoud Mekki was a leading member of the group of reformist judges that publicised the flagrant rigging of the 2005 parliamentary elections.
Mahmoud Mekki's responsibilities have yet to be made public. Most commentators believe that he will be charged with restructuring the judiciary and seeking common ground among rival forces over Egypt's future political agenda.
Secular forces and the independent Judges' Club received the news of the Mekki brothers' appointments cautiously, with the Judges' Club warning it would resist any interference in judicial affairs.
Mursi's reshuffle came just 10 days after Prime Minister Hisham Qandil unveiled his cabinet. Announced on 2 August, Qandil had retained Tantawi as minister of defence.
Analysts had assumed Tantawi was retained, along with his deputy at SCAF Anan, as a secular counterweight to Islamist President Mursi and the political ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Mursi hails.
Yet between 2 and 12 August Mursi clearly had second thoughts about Tantawi and Anan retaining their positions. Why?
There are two reasons. First came the 5 August terrorist attack in North Sinai which left 16 Egyptian border guards dead. It was followed by protests which prevented Mursi from attending the funeral of the victims, and which saw Prime Minister Hisham Qandil attacked by angry crowds when he turned up for the funeral prayers.
Mursi subsequently accused the chief of military police of failing to safeguard the funeral against furious protesters and asked Tantawi to fire him.
By 8 August chief of general intelligence Mourad Mowafi, the head of the Cairo Security Directorate, the head of Egypt's Republican Guards and the governor of North Sinai had all lost their jobs over the debacle.
Professor of political science at the Suez Canal University Gamal Zahran believes the 6 August funeral protests had embarrassed Mursi too much for him not to take action.
"They made him look like a figurehead president. He was forced to move quickly to restore his standing in the eyes of the public," says Zahran.
The funeral protests were the straw that broke the camel's back and Mursi acted quickly to cement his powers.
"Mursi may also have suspected that leading military officials had a hand in orchestrating the protests and, acting on those suspicions, orchestrated the coup against them."
The swiftness of Mursi's reaction of to the events on 5 and 6 August, says Zahran, suggests the president was also keen to pre-empt the demonstration against the Muslim Brotherhood called for 24 and 25 August.
Mursi's surprise move, Zahran points out, appeared to have been coordinated with the Brotherhood, which immediately mobilised thousands of its rank and file in Tahrir Square and around the presidential palace.
In the Islamist-dominated Shura Council Brotherhood deputies demanded Minister of Investment Osama Saleh close down the Faraeen (Pharaohs) satellite channel and filed a lawsuit against the independent daily Al-Dostour.
Faraeen and Al-Dostour had campaigned relentlessly against Mursi and the Brotherhood.
Tawfik Okasha, the owner of the Faraeen, and Islam Afif, the editor of Al-Dostour, were referred to criminal trial on 13 August on charges of slandering Mursi and inciting violence against him. The charges have irked the Press Syndicate which views them as the harbinger of an Islamist crackdown on the press.
Okasha's Faraeen had been instrumental in drumming up support for the anti-Brotherhood demonstrations planned for later this month. The aim of the protests, first propagated by former MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, was to draw attention to the Brotherhood's finances, which are shrouded in mystery, and test the legitimacy of the group.
Brotherhood officials agree that "Mursi's fears of a counter-revolution against his rule encouraged him to make bold decisions and assume full powers."
"The military establishment's weak response to the Sinai massacre and its lack of discipline, especially compared to the Israelis, was a major reason behind Mursi's 12 August orders," says leading Brotherhood official Essam El-Erian. The military, he added, should no longer be distracted by politics but must devote itself fully to safeguarding the national security.
"Mursi's orders also sent a clear message to counter-revolutionary forces that they reconsider their planed actions against the democratically elected president," argues El-Erian. "They have made it clear that thousands stand behind the president. They will refuse to allow anyone to shake his standing."
In a speech on the evening of 12 August a confident looking Mursi said his decisions "were not aimed to antagonise anyone" and urged his supporters to stand behind him "to recover stability".
Tantawi and Anan were the last of the Mubarak old guard to retain their hold on power. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's chief of general intelligence and vice president, died last month. Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister and Mursi's rival in presidential elections, has left Egypt for the United Arab Emirates and is not expected back any time soon.
Mursi's personnel changes were only the tip of the iceberg. He also cancelled the constitutional addendum issued by the military on 17 June that limited the authority of the president. Mursi replaced SCAF's declaration with one of his own, giving himself broad legislative and executive powers, including the right to appoint a new constituent assembly should the current assembly fail to draft a new constitution on time.
Mursi's cancellation of the 17 June declaration left many secular forces in a state of shock.
"The Islamist takeover of Egypt is now under way," railed Tagammu Party Chairman Rifaat El-Said. "By abrogating the 17 June supplementary declaration Mursi has established the foundations for an Islamist dictatorship."
"Secular forces have always insisted the army should return to its barracks only once a new constitution is in place and new parliamentary elections have been held. Now the army is no longer part of the equation we are about to see the emergence of an Islamist pharaoh with the kind of absolute powers not even Mubarak accrued."
Constitutional experts question the legitimacy of Mursi's abrogation of the 17 June constitutional addendum.
"When he took the constitutional oath on 30 June Mursi swore that he would respect the 17 June supplementary declaration," says constitutional law expert Shawqi El-Sayed. "Mursi's cancellation of the June constitutional addendum clearly contradicts his presidential oath.
"It provides yet more evidence that Mursi is in thrall to the Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders organised public rallies against the June supplementary declaration."
Brotherhood officials insist that the current concentration of power in Mursi's hands is temporary.
"His legislative decisions will be reviewed once a new parliament is elected," says senior Freedom and Justice Party official Saad El-Husseini. "Mursi will be keen to consult with political forces before exercising any of his legislative powers."
They are the kind of promises that a majority of secularists and liberals are tired of hearing.
So is Mursi emerging as Egypt's unchallenged leader?
There is no doubt, says Zahran, that the 12 August shake-up has weakened the military, and at a time when -- following the killing of 16 border guards -- its public standing had plummeted.
What seems clear, says Zahran, is that Mursi's moves against the military old guard were taken against a backdrop that included "an understanding between the president and other members of the military leadership".
According to Zahran, now that Mursi has picked his own military chief -- a general who supported the "virginity tests" of female protesters that activists and human rights groups denounced as sexual assault and an attempt to frighten women away from joining protests -- "the Islamist takeover of Egypt's military could be underway."
The suspicion, says Zahran, is that an agreement was struck between the Brotherhood and Tantawi and Anan. The two generals have been allowed a safe exit from power, with guarantees that they will face no prosecution for actions -- including the killing of hundreds of protesters during the period in which they were in charge of the country -- in return for helping the Brotherhood grab all the reins of state power.
"Now, with the army out of the political scene, secular forces -- including political activists and judges Òê" must prepare themselves for a battle against Egypt's first Islamist pharaoh," says Salah Eissa, editor of the secular weekly Al-Qahera (Cairo).