5 Political Scientists on the Crisis in Egypt: Consequentialism over Idealism

In the aftermath of the July 3rd military intervention that removed the elected Islamist government from power, the political crisis in Egypt shows no signs of abating. The events which led to the second military intervention to oust a civilian government in just two years is the culmination of a severely flawed process of political transition which utterly failed to account for the consequences of an idealistic and misguided rush to electoral politics. The reason, it appears, is the persistent inability to understand the strategic dynamics of political transitions and the continuing insistence on courses of development grounded in a “logic of appropriateness” that seems to equate electoral institutions with democracy. While this is a continuing fault of policymakers and activists, the academic record is somewhat stronger on this ground, despite the fact that it is largely ignored. While structural theories of democratization continue to be the vogue for the international community, it is the process-based accounts of democratization, emphasizing strategic choice, that provide the keys to understanding the failure of Egypt’s political transition of the past two years.

In 1999, Robert Bates remarked:

A major reason for the relatively democratic outcomes [in Southern Africa] is that the new regimes left the former repressors in possession of a political hostage; the private economy… Should the [retreating] tyrant and his followers own industries or banks, should they control capital, physical or financial, should they, in short, possess economic power, then those seeking their political surrender should respect their rights (1999, 83-4).

Bates’ comment, which forms the core of his explanation for successful democratization in South Africa and Namibia, constitutes an argument that successful transitions cannot lead to the replacement of one ruling group with another, for democracies are never born of revolution, but rather that successful transitions must seek to incorporate elements of the old regime into the new. This argument is also made by Adam Przeworksi in his strategic-choice account of democratization, Democracy and the Market (1991). Przeworksi’s account of transitions identifies splits within two opposing camps and predicts that successful democratic transitions are born of alliances between reformers within the old regime and moderates within the opposition, against their hardliner and radical counterparts. In both formulations, democracy is impossible without participation of the old regime.

In the Egyptian transition, this did not happen. The coalition underpinning the old regime, a combination of military and commercial power, fractured in February 2011. As a result, the military overthrew the civilian commercial elite and extended their hand to the opposition. However, the second stage of the transition caused the collapse of the process. The opposition insisted on the punishment and marginalization of the old regime, and increasingly after the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, the moderate opposition. While in revolutionary contexts, such as Iran in 1979, moderates find themselves without an ally owing to revolutionary bloodshed, Egypt experienced little revolutionary violence; the military continued to play a dominant role as powerbroker and members of the old regime retained their economic “hostages;” Egypt did not experience a true revolution. Two years later, facing a similarly intransigent challenge from the Brotherhood, “Reformers” and “Moderates,” the groups responsible for the ousting of Mubarak, united once again to oust a hardline regime that was as authoritarian in tendency as that of Mubarak.

If Egypt is to successfully complete its transition towards a more democratic form of rule, the Muslim Brotherhood, as Przeworksi’s “Radicals,” can have no leading position carrying the state forward. This is where the conclusions of Przeworksi clash with the liberal ideals of international democracy activists arguing for a greater role for all Egyptians in the path forward. As Przeworksi argues, democratization is possible only if “(1) an agreement can be reached between Reformers and Moderates to establish institutions under which the social forces they represent would have significant political presence in the democratic system, (2) Reformers can deliver the consent of the Hardliners or neutralize them, and (3) Moderates can control the Radicals” (1991, 68). In the Egyptian context, only condition (2) was fulfilled. Rather than tread carefully to ensure equitable representation and guarantees for vulnerable groups and to protect a centrist “core,” impatience both within the Egyptian secular opposition along with international observers (especially in the United States) led to an emphasis on a rush towards participation before the scope and terms of contestation had been decided upon. The “Radicals,” representing a more unified bloc than the disorganized “Moderates,” gained control of the process and progressively sidelines moderates, manipulated electoral rules, and mounted an attack on a judiciary which largely carried over from the old regime. This attempt at consolidating power was doomed from the outset. Participation was opened before the basic institutional infrastructure of the system could be determined, and an under-informed electorate was pressured to support a constitution that was ill suited for the promotion of meaningful democratic politics. Constitutions should not be selected through majoritarian politics.

Such an observation dovetails nicely with the core arguments of Robert Dahl (1971) and Samuel Huntington (1968), both of whom argued that institutions of contestation must precede the expansion of participation. Such a trajectory of political development characterizes early democracies, such as Britain and the United States, along with certain colonies, most notably Mauritius, and even such repressive regimes as South Africa. In fact, in 1984, Huntington, in a rare moment of forward-looking insight, predicted that South Africa was on a path towards democratization. In 1999, Bates’ remarks validated this observation. By gradually expanding participation, newcomers to the system, “invaders” in the parlance of evolutionary game theory, cannot destabilize the system due to their small numbers in an already consolidated system. Instead, they must accommodate to the equilibria already specified by the system in place. By collaborating with remnants of the old regime, coalitions of compromise were required and radical politics eschewed.

What does this imply for Egypt? First, Przeworski and Bates both explain the trajectory of Egyptian political development from February 2011 through July 2013. The failure of the “Moderate”-“Reformer” alliance took the form of demonstrations against military rule and the demand to turn politics over to the opposition before the constitution was written led to the emergence of “democracy without guarantees” and an attempt to monopolize the system by the radicals. In turn, this attempt threatened the power and privilege of the military and the economically powerful remnants of the old regime. In response, these remnants (Ar: fulul) manipulated the economy and eventually intervened outright to depose the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this leaves Egypt in much the same position it was in two years ago, with a military regime facing a decision about where to go next. The solution being pushed by many in the liberal camp would entail an essential repetition of the process which failed previously. Perhaps the Brotherhood has learned its hard lesson, but I suspect their reaction to a second chance would be an attempt to cut a narrow deal with the military at the expense of the rest of the population. An Islamist-dominated process in Egypt, because of its polarizing tendencies, is doomed to authoritarianism.

If Egypt decides to follow the policy prescriptions stemming from the conclusions of Huntington, Dahl, Przeworski, and Bates, then Egypt’s future would entail a strongly managed transition negotiated by leaders of the moderate opposition and the military. They would decide on the ultimate form of the state and write a constitution that would establish the institutions necessary to ensure such a state, and then would impose it on the rest of society. Elections would only be held after the imposition of a new constitution. Entry into the system would be somewhat guarded so that no group could enter the system and undermine it from within, leading to the prohibition on participation of some forces, notably the Brotherhood, during the transition. This is not to say that individual members of the Brotherhood should be barred from participation, which would push them towards renewed radicalism, but rather that the organization must be politically demobilized and individuals remobilized in other frameworks specified by a new constitution. One solution would be a constitutional clause mandating separation of religion and the state (Turkey), another would be a ban on religious parties, which is currently being considered by the interim administration. The remnants of the old regime would have to be integrated into the new state and their basic privileges protected alongside new rights and protections for groups composing the moderate opposition. Finally, the new process must guarantee the rights of individuals rather than groups.

Such a prescription is not a panacea, and it will undoubtedly be received with discomfort, if not outright revulsion, by pro-democracy activists and policymakers. In fact, outspoken voices across the globe have been advocating precisely the opposite, demanding the reincorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood! Moreover, the violence that has gripped Egypt in recent days has gravely damaged the cohesion of a moderate coalition and increased moderate sympathy for radical positions, once again polarizing Egyptian politics. Furthermore, it has lent credence to a false narrative that equates Mursi supporters with pro-democracy activism, leading liberals to support the continuation of a process which has done nothing but undermine political liberalization in Egypt. While this violent repression has served little constructive purpose, the alternatives being advocated, ranging from the reinstatement of Mursi to reconciliation and reincorporation of the Brotherhood, will not put the country on track to democracy. The only solution is to begin again with closer attention to the possible consequences of constitutional decisions and recognition that constitutions reflect the interests of their writers.

The consequences of the rush to elections and universal inclusion have made themselves felt in Egypt and beyond. Similar transitions are in danger in Libya and Tunisia. Unlike the others, however, in Egypt the military is ideally situated to manage a transition to political democracy due to its corporate identity, cohesion, and general dislike of civilian politics. While they would be, as Barbara Geddes argues in her analysis of authoritarian breakdowns (2004), the most suited force to lead a state to democracy, the generals must not succumb to the pressure of idealists to exit politics until a new system is in place, as this would be just as damaging as a decision to remain in politics in the long term. Simultaneously, they must not antagonize those inclined to support their intervention by continuing their offensive against Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. For as the continuing stalemate, marked by mutual recriminations, reveals, the Egyptian state cannot get on without the military in an active stewardship role in the short term, even if they cannot prosper under military rule in the long term.

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What We’re Reading

More of “What We’re Reading” from the TSFR team, with a healthy dose of Egypt links at the bottom:

  • Learn your ABC’s with this Soviet-era erotic alphabet. This is interesting on many levels; in particular, consider that this was a policy by the USSR used to combat adult illiteracy: in other words, art, erotica, and a bit of sexism were combined in imagery as an educational policy. A friendly warning: do not open this at work. Do not open this around children, either.
  • More on protests in Brazil, from Nauro F. Campos. He concludes: “Against the stereotype of a laid-back and peaceful people, the historical record suggests the propensity to protest in Brazil is high and may have increased in the last decades. The current wave of protests has multiple causes but three important ones are corruption and inefficiency in public services delivery, political ineptitude and the electoral cycle. These make for the possibility that protests may well continue as the executive and the protesters push for political reform and improved public services against forces that are well represented in the legislature.”
  • Andrew Gelman writes in Slate about “researcher degrees of freedom” — reminding all of us to leave stargazing to the astronomers.
  • Why all Muslims are not terrorists, according to Bayes (and Phil Arena at the Duck of Minerva).
  • Sometimes it seems like Jordan might be one giant attempt to see how many things you can do to a state before it fails. The current episode: Syrian refugees. Lots of them.
  • Matt Yglesias wonders aloud about whether poor social mobility in the American South is associated with historical efforts to disenfranchise blacks: “If your poor population contains a very large number of African-Americans, then perhaps the only viable means of keeping the black man down are going to involve denying opportunities for upward mobility to poor people of all races. Strong public schools, economically mixed neighborhoods, dense cities, and other pathways of economic mobility would undermine the racial hierarchy, so they meet with unusual levels of resistance.”
  • Ahsan Butt has a clever new piece in International Organization arguing that the decline of U.S. intervention in Latin America in the 1930s is the cause of a bump in Latin American wars during that same time period. We don’t know if we buy his empirical story, but the piece is important because it has obvious implications for U.S. retrenchment today. It seems like trying to find analogous historical episodes of retrenchment is something both sides should be doing in making their arguments for U.S. policy, rather than arguing solely based on fuzzy concepts like “leadership.”
  • Selection effects and the Voting Rights Act: Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder argued, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens weighs in on the case (including this particular argument) here.
  • Interesting empirical finding from India: “We find that increasing the political representation of Muslims improves health and education outcomes in the district from which the legislator is elected. We find no evidence of religious favoritism: Muslim children do not benefit more from Muslim political representation than children from other religious groups.” The paper exploits a regression discontinuity based on narrow electoral victories. If the finding is true, it seems like a coalitional story — where Muslim politicians are often part of a coalition that also represents poor Hindus — is likely part of the answer, although the draft has little explanatory narrative.
  • An opposition figure is gunned down in Tunisia with the same weapon used to kill another prominent politician earlier this year, further complicating Tunisia’s transition.
  • Fighting in Syria as diplomatic wrangling proceeds in New York.
  • Egypt!
    • Steve Negus at the Arabist on army chief General al-Sissi calling for mass demonstrations seeking a mandate against “terrorism” — code for the Muslim Brotherhood and allies. Negus argues this marks a strategic shift (“Unless he genuinely miscalculated the impact of what he said  — as we learned with SCAF, this is always a possibility when career military men enter politics — al-Sissi has diverged considerably from his July 3 strategy of having a civilian interim government out in front.”) and offers some possible explanations as to why this shift took place.
    • Steven Cook weighs in with a NY Times op-ed: “A Faustian Pact: Generals as Democrats”
    • Sinai continues to boil over following Morsi’s unceremonious ouster from Egypt’s presidency early this month.
    • If you can’t disperse ’em, massacre ’em (not an endorsement of said tactics): some images (many disturbing/graphic) from clashes at a pro-Morsi sit in on Saturday.
    • Speaking of terrible violence, Sarah Carr writes Saturday on state strategy, and parallels to Tiananmen: “It seems more and more likely that security bodies will act in the next few days. Yesterday night’s violence on Nasr Road demonstrates that they are incapable of acting with restraint or with any kind of sensible plan. That they are taking on a massive civilian sit-in spells disaster. But just for the record, I would like to suggest that there are ways to minimise [a Brit!] the deaths and injuries so that we do not replicate what happened in Tiananmen Square.”
    • Another piece by Sarah Carr, on al-Sissi’s speech and its reception in Egypt: “The general public was sold. It ran stumbling and screaming into Sisi’s protective arms and nestled in his bosom. Almost overnight, people mutated into barrel-thumping nationalists celebrating a victory against a foreign enemy, when no battle has yet been won and their enemy is one of them. Hot air — lots of hot air — has been blown into former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s corpse. Perhaps they are trying to blow his spirit into Sisi. Three years after the heady independent days of January 25, and Egyptians are once again seeking out the army strongman to hold their hand, and an enemy — invented or real, it doesn’t matter — to define and shape their cause. Like all nationalist movements, this is sentiment partly informed by fear and hate. There is nothing of real ideological substance here, no long-term goal other than either containing the Brotherhood or crushing the Islamist movement.”
    • Egypt’s foreign minister on Brotherhood participation, and potential repercussions if they fail to come into the political process following Morsi’s ouster, which the group has strongly opposed: “If they decide to withdraw from politics, it will be disappointing. If they decide to pursue violence, then you are looking at a completely different confrontation […] Even if I personally reject their positions or ideology, they have to find their place in Egypt’s political life.” But…
    • …see Ashraf Khalil on setting the legal basis for Morsi’s detention through investigation of espionage charges: On July 26, “an Egyptian judge announced the detention of deposed President Mohamed Morsi for 15 days while authorities investigate charges of espionage levied against him by the transitional government… The fact of Morsi’s detention is less surprising than the nature of the charges themselves—branding Morsi and the Brotherhood, in essence, as traitors. It is not the sort of maneuver that a government interested in reconciling with disaffected opponents would make. Friday’s ruling, combined with the pro-military protests called for the same day, have now set the stage for a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood that seems likely to drive the organization back underground.”

What We’re Reading

Happy (belated) 4th of July! While you work off that post-celebration hangover, here’s some more of what we’re reading to pass the time:

What We’re Reading

(Democratic) Peace in the Middle East?

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Michael Poznansky, Ph.D. Student in Foreign Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, University of Virginia

The Middle East is in trouble. If the ongoing civil war in Syria, fears of nuclear proliferation in Iran, and a tenuous cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas were not enough, Egypt has recently passed a constitution instantiating the precepts of Islamism. In a recent article in the New York Times, John Owen suggests that proponents of Islamism—a brand of political Islam forged by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s—are thriving in the new Middle East, espousing an alternative to the secular tradition of Western liberal democracy. In this post, I explore the future of Egypt’s regime and its impact on any potential democratic peace with the U.S. In the remaining space, I address three issues: (1) the state of the Egyptian regime and its implications for democratic peace; (2) what history and theory can tell us about analogous situations; and (3) how these lessons inform the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

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The Benefits of Instability: Continued Unrest in Sinai

It is not often that conflict and instability are promising signs, but depending on one’s perspective, the deepening conflict in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is potentially a positive development. While other events within Egypt suggest a startling continuation of a domestic status quo, notably the continued limits on journalistic freedom, ongoing protests in Tahrir Square, and accusations of corruption being thrown at the new president and his family, none of this speaks directly to concerns about Egypt’s future role in the international community. And it is precisely this role with which Egypt’s most important strategic partners, notably the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, are the most concerned. Israeli sources continue to cast villainous barbs at the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi while the West has engaged in an unproductive level of hand-wringing over their future relationship. At the same time, however, Hamas and Gazan Palestinians have admitted frustration and disappointment at the “Islamist” government’s continuation of Mubarak-era policies effective placing Gazan Palestinians under an Israeli-American siege, which is seen as collaboration by a majority of Arabs both in and out of Egypt. Continued unrest in Sinai and the responses favored by the major state actors involved suggest that a set of structural conditions is pushing these states to work together to face common threats in ways that most pundits and “experts” did not expect.

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The first, most basic problem with the Sinai Peninsula is its endemic level of unrest. Despite  the state’s attempts to claim political legitimacy, Egypt has consistently failed to institutionalize any type of stable system in Sinai. They are physically incapable of penetrating much of Sinai’s mountainous terrain and urban dwellers in the few cities in the North complain of arbitrary rule through coercion that makes life both insecure and highly uncertain. In fact, it is plausible to suggest that this failure to institutionalize in Sinai has been a major factor that created room for the puritanical Islamist Salafi movements, currently labeled “jihadi militant organizations” by Egyptian armed forces, to insinuate themselves into the power vacuum. While a wide variety of Islamist movements including the Muslim Brothers, Hamas, and Hezbollah are often labeled “terrorist organizations,” this obfuscates the main sources of their popularity: institution building. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its forerunners responded to the needs of a poor and marginalized Shi’i population; in Palestine, Hamas provided social welfare services that an increasingly corrupt PLO was unwilling or unable to provide. Similarly, Sinai urbanites in towns like el-Arish and Sheikh Zuwayd link their support for Salafist organizations to the security that these groups have provided. Though many residents concede that it is not a perfect system, especially due to the strict attempts to regulate social conduct, they appreciate that no one will be harassed unless they are doing “something wrong.” While in the West we may have strong opinions about what constitutes “wrongdoing,” the point is that the Salafists have removed the high level of uncertainty generated by [perceived] random exercise of violence by the state.

The major concern expressed by pundits and politicians regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt was that ideology would trump other political concerns. The accusation, by conservatives in both Israel and the US, was that Egyptian Islamists would find common cause, working to overthrow their secular opponents and establishing an Islamic Republic echoing the Iranian Revolution. A Brotherhood-Salafi alliance was also predicted and security officials in Israel expressed concern that armed groups in North Sinai may be given space to grow. This was especially a concern vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, largely due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological cousin, Hamas, ruling Gaza right next door.

Besides the rhetoric of Islamist ideologues, intensified by the populism of democratic elections, there appears to be little cause for concern regarding these alarmist predictions thus far. Instead of a conflict between Islamists and secularists, the dominant security cleavage that appears to be emerging is one between states and non-state actors. Contrary to early predictions, tensions between the Egyptian state and Hamas do not appear to be abating, and in fact may be getting worse. In the aftermath of a militant attack on an Egyptian police station near the Sinai-Gaza border, the Egyptian blockade has once again been re-imposed and efforts to destroy the smuggling tunnels into Gaza have been renewed and are currently proceeding at a pace unheard of during the Mubarak regime. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction between aiding Palestinians in Sinai and attempting to stabilize the Egyptian state; President Mursi’s administration has definitively chosen the latter.

The ongoing military operation targeting various non-state forces under the guise of “anti-terror” operations as well as tentatively promising signs of a space opening for Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation further reinforce this state/non-state actor cleavage. The intelligence failure that culminated in the police station attack was an embarrassment to the Egyptian security apparatus, not in their failure to anticipate the attacks, but in the reality that Israel provided advanced warning that was categorically ignored by Egyptian intelligence. Not only did Mursi radically overhaul the North Sinai security team, replacing his own Defense Minister and Chief of Staff in addition to the unpopular governor of North Sinai, but he also rebuked his own party, the Muslim Brothers, for their claim that Israeli intelligence was responsible for the attack, an accusation about as realistic as the charge that they were behind a series of shark attacks in Sinai last year. In reality, Israel has proven itself to be a credible partner for continued security cooperation. This is aided by the simple fact that Egypt and Israel, both targets of non-state actors in Gaza and Sinai, continue to share common security interests.

Compounding this effect is the lack of clear information regarding who these “terrorists” in Sinai are. While most authorities concluded that the attackers were Palestinian militants from Gaza, Egypt has taken the opportunity to target Egyptian Islamists in Sinai despite scant evidence of their involvement in any of the cross-border violence. Moreover, this has continued even as the Islamists have responded to the crackdown with violence of their own, often in the form of reprisal attacks. Furthermore, the link between these Salafist groups and Gaza is tenuous, sustained more through family connections than ideological or operational linkages. On the other hand, Bedouin tribes in North Sinai are intimately involved in the smuggling operations that utilize these tunnels. The movement of weapons, narcotics, and even human beings across the Sinai border has been a source of friction between the Bedouin facilitating the trade and Salafists in el-Arish attempting to impose order, to the extent that there have even been reports of clashes between the two groups. Rounding out the trifecta of non-state actors are the avowedly militant jihadist groups, whose numbers have been reinforced by prisoners that escaped during the Revolution, which have been able to find refuge in Sinai’s insurgent-friendly geography. Little is actually known about these groups and what their actual numbers are, since state forces have taken to conflating all non-state forces with these groups.

Reports coming out of Sinai are inconsistent regarding the state’s approaches to these various issues; articles have suggested that the state is eager to cooperate with the Bedouin against the Salafi jihadists, while others suggest the Bedouin have been targeted by security forces. Of course, these reports need not be mutually exclusive. However in the absence of any consistent system of militant identifiability in Sinai, the question remains, what do these groups have in common that is making them targets of the Egyptian military and why do they form the basis for Israel-Egyptian cooperation? Furthermore, why might an attack launched by Palestinians lead to a crackdown against Egyptian Islamists? The answer is best expressed by raison d’état and the struggle between the state and powerful non-state actors that has come to define Middle Eastern conflict since the Camp David accords. In spite of similar ideological leanings, Mursi’s government does not seem any more inclined to cooperate or negotiate with non-state forces than Mubarak’s was. While friction with Hamas seems to be inevitable in the face of continued Palestinian agitation in the Sinai, it seems to have provided the Egyptian state an opportunity to popularize its attempt to consolidate power against the backdrop of a “war on terror.”

These developments make the Iranian model of regime-formation appear even less likely in the Egyptian case; simply put, the comparison does not contain a high level of realism. Neither Mursi nor the Brotherhood seems committed to exporting their revolution and providing aid to resistance movements across the Middle East.  In this case, it is perhaps Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that provides a good model for understanding the relationship between Islam and International Relations: Islam operates as an important principle in domestic politics and public relations, but is subordinated to pragmatism in the realm of national security producing a state that is quite conservative and irrevocably tied to the United States despite moral claims of value incompatibility. Too, Saudi Arabia provides an informative model for balancing powerful non-state actors that plague Egyptian national security priorities: Saudi Arabia is no less hostile to these groups than Egypt, despite their largely conciliatory strategy for dealing with them. This is not to say that Egypt will inevitably turn to this model, just that the new Egyptian government will only succeed once it realizes the economic and strategic limitations on its ability to pursue an ideologically loaded agenda.

This, of course, does not suggest that relations between Israel and Egypt are likely to get any better in the near future. On both sides of the border the public brinksmanship and mudslinging continues. However, it appears that with every passing day, both governments are realizing that their shared insecurities necessitate a closer level of cooperation. Although this may be bad news for Egyptian residents of Sinai, who have continued to suffer under arbitrary and often violent Egyptian rule, for the US and Israel, it should be taken as a promising signal that despite the face-lift, neither the basic security interests of the Egyptian state nor the strategies Egypt has adopted to pursue them have transformed as radically as had originally been feared.

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…

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