The Quest to Rule Egypt, Plus Sinai

It’s been an eventful month so far in Egypt, to put it mildly. On the heels of rising instability and fatal violence in North Sinai pitting militants against both the Egyptian and Israeli states, on Sunday President Mohamed Morsy announced significant changes to both the leadership of the armed forces and the structure of the political system.

Clashes in the north of Sinai are nothing new, but the attack on August 5 — an operation that resulted in the deaths of 16 Egyptian border guards, as well as the theft of vehicles then used to penetrate Israel — was shocking in both its magnitude and audacity. (See The Arabist for Issandr El Amrani’s exceedingly useful summary of the initial attack in Sinai, posted August 6.) The area has since seen additional violence, including Egyptian airstrikes that` reportedly killed 20, and further armed clashes initiated by both militants and Egyptian armed forces.

As the situation in North Sinai has continued to boil over, the jockeying over power at the national level doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. President Morsy (who captured the presidency as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, although since his election victory he has formally left the organization and its political party) recently moved to assert his authority in a two-pronged maneuver, as laid out in an August 12 article in The New York Times:

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, moving more aggressively than ever before to reclaim political power that the military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he took office on June 30, that had gutted the authority of his office. On Sunday, he replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.

This came after a different shakeup earlier this month in direct response to the attacks in Sinai. As for what this all means, there isn’t exactly consensus. The August 12 NYT story following the more recent personnel changes noted:

For his new defense minister, Mr. Morsi chose the head of military intelligence, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was seen as close to Field Marshal Tantawi… Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the military council, was named an assistant defense minister. He told Reuters that Mr. Morsi’s decision was “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.”

While the retirements marked at least a symbolic end to the military’s dominant role in Egyptian politics, Mr. Morsi’s abolishment of the constitutional declaration posed a more fundamental challenge to the military. It also raised the possibility of a new confrontation with one of Egypt’s highest courts.

After offering a caveat regarding the preliminary nature of his impressions, El Amrani presented his initial perspective on the moves in a Sunday post. In the piece, he breaks down Morsy’s decisions into two categories, dealing first with the military personnel changes:

The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity…

This continuity suggests to me that we are dealing with a reconfigured SCAF that is nonetheless a powerful entity that still has powers parallel to the presidency and other civilian institutions. It is not, as the initial reaction to today’s news largely was, a victory by Morsi over the military. Rather, it is a reconfiguration of the relationship.

Even so, it does appear the presidency comes out reinforced. This is the second part of the major changes announced today. Morsi also declared though a four-article decree that:

  • the June 17 Supplemental Constitutional Declaration is annulled;
  • the president has assumed the powers outlined in Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration, i.e. the powers previously held by SCAF
  • the president will, through a national consultation, appoint a new Constituent Assembly within 15 days if the president does not complete its task. A new constituent assembly would prepare a new constitution within three months, be referred to a national referendum within 30 days of completion, and once adopted would be followed by new parliamentary elections within two months.

With a comparative politics field exam looming just over the horizon (oy), I’ve been trying to put these developments in perspective — if only to justify the inordinate amount of time spent thinking about Egypt — in regards to the academic literature on authoritarian regimes and democratic transitions, as well as political institutions. I hope to share these thoughts in a forthcoming post, but for now here are a couple of other insightful ways to look at the recent events.

In a Reuters article found at the Egypt Independent, one prominent scholar of the Egyptian armed forces gave his take on the situation:

“It’s a takeover of military rule rather than the end of military rule. This is another phase of authoritarian rule,” says Robert Springborg, a professor at the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on the Egyptian military institution.

“The military is now serving as an instrument for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsy’s move institutionalizes normal civilian control over the military,” he added.

[It’s worth noting that Springborg’s work was the subject of significant controversy late last year in Egypt.]

Wael Eskander, of Notes from the Underground, had this to say in a recent post (in the interest of full disclosure, Wael is a friend):

So much of what has been happening has been conducted with much secrecy, that is why all we have today is analysis and speculation. However, it does seem that the likely scenario is a coup to counteract a coup as Hesham Sallam explained:

“Al-Assar, Al-Sisi and others led a coup against Tantawi and Anan in order to preempt a prospective coup attempt that could have gotten the army into uncertain political confrontations—specifically confrontations that could have led the military establishment to lose everything vis-à-vis the MB. Consistent with this theory is the fact that Al-Dostoor newspaper was confiscated yesterday after effectively making a public call for a coup–which suggests that some elements within the SCAF had been prodding their allies inside the media establishment to begin promoting the image of popular support for a coup”

It is clear to me that something was planned for 24 August 2012 and that is what was pre-empted. The Muslim Brotherhood (Morsi) had to have the support of some elements inside the army so as to come out with this decision. The support of the usual regime whores like Mostafa Bakry and Ibrahim Eissa is further proof that we’re not off the mark.

El Amrani of the Arabist noted in his comment on this post:

There had been calls for mass protests against Morsi and the MB and the Brotherhood on the 24th, backed by some of the press and political establishment. Maybe this is what forced their hands.

Follow the link in the Notes from the Underground excerpt above, where Eskander shares more from Sallam, a PhD student in Georgetown’s Department of Government. Sallam’s perspective is worth excerpting here one more time, however, as a final note — and food for thought about the broader significance of these developments:

As we begin to discuss what this means for the revolution and the future of civil-military relations in Egypt, I think it’s important to bear in mind that these changes have been proceeding thus far through a consensual process between the military and the presidency (even if Tantawi and Anan and some other are not on board). It’s also important to repeat the lesson of the eighteen-day uprising: personnel reshuffles, and transformative institutional change are not one and the same.

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One thought on “The Quest to Rule Egypt, Plus Sinai

  1. Pingback: IB Online (4/8): eine kleine Netzschau « Vom Bohren harter Bretter

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