Not exactly a coup, but almost
The decision by President Mursi to defang the military was sudden as it was decisive, reports Ahmed Eleiba
Triggered by events in Rafah, President Mohamed Mursi took a daring step that ended the power struggle between him and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and dashed any hopes by the military to hang on to power.
A key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the recent decisions by the president eradicated the presence of the so-called "deep state" in Egypt.
Former defence minister Hussein Tantawi and former chief of staff Sami Anan will be given honorary medals and posts in the presidential team, but will have no real power from now on, according to the FJP source. As for the possibility of legal action against the two men or other members of the SCAF, the source dismissed it, saying that the president wants a face-saving exit for the SCAF.
Military analysts say that most of the errors committed by the SCAF were unintentional, caused mostly by inexperience and the unusual circumstances the country was passing through in the wake of the revolution which toppled Hosni Mubarak as president.
According to some political analysts, the SCAF was not as politicised as the Revolutionary Command Council of 1952. It was only a caretaking council running things according to a timetable for the handover of power. Or at least this is how things started.
In the early statements of the SCAF, it was clear that it had no political ambitions. But eventually the SCAF turned into an active political player, as the recent supplementary constitutional amendment illustrates.
The recent constitutional declaration, says military expert Safwat El-Zayat, was the SCAF's biggest mistake.
The SCAF alienated everyone, young revolutionaries just as veteran politicians, says Ahmed Abd Rabbu, a member of the now disbanded Youths of the Revolution Coalition:
"Today we can say that the SCAF is really out of power. The SCAF lost the support of the revolutionaries who went out in demonstrations to ask for its removal and trial. Even the Brotherhood, which initially coordinated with the SCAF, turned against it. This is because the SCAF tried to put together the tattered remains of the Mubarak regime. It lost public support because of what happened in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the cabinet, Maspero, and Abbasiya events," Abd Rabbu adds. These Cairo areas all involved deadly street battles.
El-Zayat agrees with this assessment. "We have to compare two scenes, one on 11 February 2011, when the demonstrators were shouting that the army and the people were one hand, and one a few weeks ago, when they were calling for the end of military rule. The SCAF was packed with people who should have retired at least 20 years ago. But they stayed on, adding to the ossification of the state and acting as if some of the state's institutions were above the law. The top brass were duped by some members of the elite who made them believe that they could stay longer in power, even when everyone at home and abroad wanted them to leave. You may have noticed that US spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that Washington knew of the changes at the top of the military beforehand. What does this tell you?"
Tantawi, El-Zayat says, lost his chance for an honourable mention in the history records. By October 2011, when tanks rolled over the bodies of innocent civilians, the SCAF was already part of the problem, he points out.
The SCAF, one may argue, should have left power the moment the president was sworn in. But it stayed put, perhaps because it felt that the Muslim Brotherhood was poised to hijack the state's institution, including the army.
Military analyst Talaat Musallam says that the SCAF did not have political ambitions in the beginning, but only a timetable to hand over power right after a president takes office and the constitution is written. But once Mursi was in office, a power struggle surfaced.
"The SCAF wanted to stay in power, however partially, until the constitution was written. But the president had other plans, which he made clear in his speeches in the Constitutional Court, Tahrir Square and Cairo University. Also, his attempt to reconvene the parliament rubbed the SCAF the wrong way. Tantawi and Anan were prepared to leave power on 30 June, but they decided to stay put, thinking that this was the right thing to do. But this was just as bad a move as a lot of their earlier decisions during the interim period. Still, they didn't want the differences to become public. But there was no turning back at this point, so the president used the Rafah incident against them. The Sinai situation was terrible. For the first time ever the Egyptian army was attacked by Egyptians. The error, in my opinion, was committed by two junior officers and an army unit that failed to take defensive measures. The statements of general intelligence chief Mourad Mowafi were valid, but they rubbed the president the wrong way," Musallam notes.
Military expert Adel Suleiman says that the time of military coups is over. The international community is against the military taking power anywhere.
"I came back from a military trip to the Pakistani-Afghan borders a few weeks ago. I found that many of the Jihadist members of Al-Qaeda have a far-reaching communication network with their comrades in neighbouring countries, and they benefited from the poor security in the countries of the Arab Spring. So the military should have left power instead of engaging in political debates which ended with the army getting dragged into the quagmire of Sinai. We need new leaders and new plans so that the country may emerge from its dire straits. The old leaders who have been around for decades should have stepped down to allow new blood to come along," Suleiman adds.
News of a SCAF plan to stage a coup against the president alarmed MB members, who still deny prior knowledge of Mursi's plans to dismiss Tantawi and Anan. But the president pre-empted the coup. His top aides say that his first trip to Rafah left him in a bad mood and that he felt even worse after the second trip, when he saw that the security measures were less than satisfactory.
The president decided that sharing power with the SCAF was not going to lead anywhere. According to a senior MB source, the president met with Counsellor Mahmoud Mekki and Ambassador Mohamed Refaa. The three men decided to issue a new constitutional declaration abrogating the last declaration by the SCAF. The wording of the decision was kept so secret that the presidential spokesman was reading the statement out on television without rehearsing it in advance.
Musallam says that no one should even talk about a coup or listen to what the MB is saying about the involvement of Tantawi and Anan in the Rafah events. He dismisses as untrue claims by MB members that the security negligence in Sinai was planned to undermine the president's authority.
According to El-Zayat, the most likely scenario is that the SCAF knew that its days in power were limited and that the visits to Egypt by US secretaries Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta made it clear that the military would not be allowed to hold on to power. This was a matter of agreement between Mursi and army commanders who had strong links with the US, including the new Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
An MB source denies prior agreement with the Americans, but admits that US officials knew what was about to happen.
"The president has his own men in the SCAF and he received certain messages suggesting that the SCAF was trying to get him in trouble. I believe that El-Sisi played a role in passing on this kind of messages and that he was the point man who persuaded SCAF members, especially Tantawi and Anan, to accept the new situation and leave without making a fuss. The impressive record of El-Sisi in the army and his popularity among various army officers of all ranks played in his favour, and it is unlikely that anyone will challenge his authority," the source says.
The subsequent coordination with Washington was routine because the US involvement in the army on the levels of finance and logistics is substantial.
"Anan and Tantawi didn't have much of a choice," the MB source states.
El-Zayat offers his own take on the showdown: "The SCAF didn't plan to stage a coup against an elected president, but could have engineered events that undermine the president and initiate the kind of turbulence that may allow the SCAF to return to power. But the SCAF was not impenetrable, and El-Sisi's ties with the president made it easy for the latter to act," El-Zayat says.
The Tantawi-led SCAF is over. And a new SCAF is not being formed by new military leaders, with El-Sisi making sure that the new SCAF will have no interest in politics, according to Musallam.
Both El-Zayat and Musallam agree that El-Sisi and his second in command, Chief of Staff Sobhi Sidqi, may not keep their jobs for long. Once they get things under control in Sinai, a major restructuring of the Ministry of Defence will begin.