Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The rise and fall of SCAF

Ahmed Eleiba plots the tortured course of SCAF’s relationship with Egypt’s first non-military president

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Mohamed Morsi moved against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) at a sensitive political moment, using the attack in Rafah to provide political cover for him to end the cold war between the presidency and the generals.

The stand-off had begun in the transitional phase and was exacerbated by Morsi’s role as head of the Freedom and Justice Party. It grew ahead of the presidential race when threats were exchanged and escalated further after Morsi moved into the Al-Ittihadiya Palace as president, though SCAF was at that point divided over what course it should follow.

The president killed any military aspirations to stay in power, says a source within the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) who attended the closed meeting during which the president took the decision to force Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his deputy, Sami Anan, into retirement.

Political circles agree that forcing out Tantawi and Anan ended the duality of power in Egypt and was the start of purging what is often described as the “deep state”. It ended the power struggle between civil and military powers and pulled the rug from beneath seven decades of military rule. Not that the two were expelled with ignominy: they received state honours and were given roles in the presidential team.

SCAF was guaranteed a safe exit. Despite many court petitions to prosecute SCAF for its actions during the transition, including the deaths of many protesters, Morsi’s position was clear. No such prosecutions would be allowed to go ahead, let alone succeed.

Military experts agree that SCAF’s transitional phase performance was riddled with political failures. Crises were initiated and the military fell into traps laid by the political elite. This bumbling performance they put down to political inexperience.

Helmi Shaarawi, a strategic expert, points out that SCAF never intended to act as a revolutionary command council but rather a committee that would administer the country until a political process could be put in place that would allow the military to hand over power. The army’s position was made clear in the first of SCAF’s communiqués.

That position, though, changed. Eventually SCAF grew ambitious for the military to have a formal role in any future political process, a shift made clear in the supplementary constitutional declaration. This, says military expert Brigadier Safwat Al-Zayat, represents SCAF’s greatest political failing.

The military’s journey between these two positions was marked by growing clashes with some traditional political forces and most revolutionary youth groups.

“SCAF played a political role and lost the support of the revolutionaries who took to the streets to demand its ouster and prosecution,” says Ahmed Abd Rabbo, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. “In the end even the Muslim Brotherhood [MB], which had busily coordinated power with SCAF, abandoned its erstwhile partner because of its attempts to restore Mubarak’s regime.”

“SCAF alienated the people with a series of horrific abuses, in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, before the cabinet headquarters, Maspero and Abbasiya. Occasional sympathy, however, is voiced over the way the top brass were shoved aside by the very people they once supported politically.”

“On 11 February 2011 people chanted ‘the people and the army are one’ and talk of revolutionary legitimacy was everywhere. How did we move from that scene to one in which massed demonstrators were shouting ‘down, down with military rule’?,” asks Al-Zayat. “Who was responsible for this seismic shift?”

Al-Zayat answers his own question: “They were a group who should have retired two decades earlier but who remained at the helm because Egypt itself was frozen, mired in inertia, allowing some institutions to rise above the state. The elite found it easy to manipulate the military who had come to believe they could somehow stay in power when everyone, at home and abroad, agreed that they must leave.”

“Statements by Victoria Noland make it clear Washington was aware of the changes among the top brass ahead of their announcement by Morsi. Tantawi lost a golden opportunity to have a place in history. Instead he is saddled with a long record of abuses.”

“In October 1973 the army was trusted by the people as it tore through Israeli lines to take back Sinai. In October 2011 tanks were crushing innocent Egyptians at Maspero in scenes that enraged the domestic front.”

Although many in the military agree SCAF should have left power the moment Morsi was sworn in, some argue there were good reasons to stay in power, including the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would endeavour to taint state institutions — including the Armed Forces — with its own colours. Major General Talaat Mosallam recounts these fears.

“I don’t believe SCAF craved power during the transitional phase. They had a clear political agenda that concluded with leaving power once an elected president was installed and a constitution in place. But they discovered the president was plotting to undermine their plan to remain in power, even partially, until the constitution was written. Signs of the plot emerged in speeches Morsi gave at the Supreme Constitutional Court, Tahrir Square and Cairo University, and informed his position on the constitutional declaration and restoring the People’s Assembly.”

“Tantawi and Anan had planned to leave on 30 June. Instead they decided to stay on, against everyone’s will, in the belief that it was the correct course. It was the culmination of many wrong turns in the transitional phase during which they should have been more assertive. They failed to assert themselves because they feared it would provoke conflict. The conflict emerged anyway, and the president maliciously seized on the Rafah attack to move against them.”

The era of military coups is over and the international community will no longer tolerate the army in power, says Major General Adel Suleiman.

“A few weeks ago I returned from a military visit to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where I found a number of Al-Qaeda jihadists who have broad connections with their comrades in other countries — especially Arab Spring states where security is lax. In such a situation we need new leaders and plans in order to prevent the ship from sinking. The people who had led the military for decades had to make room for new blood.”

There were many rumours about a planned coup by SCAF against the president, or stories on how it was planning to manipulate a civilian regime from behind the scenes. These rumours resonated among Brotherhood leaders. Although many of them say they were not privy to the president’s decision, one of them describes Morsi’s move as “a coup against the coup”.

According to this source, “after his first trip to Rafah President Morsi was very upset, and even more so after his second trip when he discovered the extent of the crisis in managing operations on the ground… It was then that the president took his decision: he must put an end to the duality of power, the multilateral management of missions and security operations in Sinai that replicated the tactics of Mubarak and his minister of interior.”

The president decided to end the role of SCAF and met with his Vice President Mahmoud Mekki and Chief of Staff Ambassador Mohamed Rifaa. It was a closed meeting with firm orders from the president not to be interrupted for any reason. The source says that details of the meeting were not leaked outside the palace “except once when an aide informed Khairat Al-Shater without telling Morsi”.

“Morsi found out and sternly reprimanded the aide. The meeting took place in a meeting room next to another room where Field Marshal Tantawi, General Anan and deputy defence minister for economic affairs were waiting.”

“The plan was that the president would wait for a green light from the army. This was provided when General Sobhi Sedki — who at first did not know the president’s intentions — came in and reported on three opinion polls inside the military. The survey had been conducted in three stages and confirmed that the army wanted to end the negative image it had accrued during the course of military rule. This is what Morsi was waiting for.”

“At the time, there was a lot of information and reports arriving on the president’s desk from people who knew the ins and outs of the palace and were trying to prove their loyalty to the president. General [Abdel-Fattah] Al-Sisi joined the meeting but made it clear he did not want to become defence minister and sabotage the image of former SCAF leaders. Those present promised this would not happen.”

“Before Al-Sisi and Sedki arrived there was agreement that if the feedback from the army and its leadership was negative then we should abort the plan and call in the field marshal, general and military economic official to the meeting and ask for LE1 billion from the military budget to shore up the government’s shaky budget and say this was the reason they had been summoned.”

“A decision was made to issue a constitutional declaration cancelling the earlier military constitutional declaration by which SCAF had accrued legislative power. All other decisions followed on from this. The wording was kept secret. Even the official spokesman read the presidential decree without previous knowledge of it or being briefed about it. Around the table there was agreement that the street would support the move.”

Military experts reject the coup scenario out of hand.

“It’s not even worthy of discussion,” says Mosallam. “Brotherhood insinuations that Tantawi and Anan were complicit in the Rafah attacks are unacceptable. Tantawi took the oath of office in Kandil’s government because he had to remain as SCAF chairman and that could not happen unless he remained minister of defence.”

Some Brotherhood leaders have alleged that the president believed the Rafah attack was a result of willful negligence by parties keen to tarnish his image.

A more realistic scenario, says Al-Zayat, is that SCAF knew it could not stay in power and that during their visits to Cairo US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had been “adamant the military leave power”.

“The matter was then settled between the president and leaders of the army who were closely connected to the US, most notably Defence Minister Colonel General Al-Sisi.”

A Brotherhood source is keen to deny any US involvement: “As far as we know the matter was not coordinated with Washington. They were merely informed without pre-arrangements or pre-agreements. The president had his men in SCAF and there were secret messages that reached him about political disruption to follow, which he understood to mean that SCAF was plotting against him.”

The source implied that Al-Sisi played a role in passing on messages: “Al-Sisi was in contact with the president following most SCAF meetings. He was known to us as the General. Al-Sisi could have acted as the safety valve to silence everyone, especially Tantawi and Anan, not with force or threats but through the army’s own desire to change leadership.”

“Tantawi and Anan realised [Al-Sisi’s] strength and that the messages Morsi was being given were enough to guarantee a smooth departure without confrontation. They were aware the military would welcome Al-Sisi’s arrival at its helm.”

“Coordination with Washington followed protocol. The US is involved with Egypt’s military commanders because it provides financial and logistical support.

“SCAF did not want to carry out a coup against an elected president,” says Al-Zayat. “It would much rather have pushed matters in the direction of political turmoil in the hope that the ensuing chaos would allow it to return to power. Al-Sisi’s relationship with the president meant such ambitions were known to Morsi and made it easy for the president to dispose of SCAF.”

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