The spokesman of the Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, did not mince words. He said that the “retirement” of all the senior military commanders in the country represented the completion of the Egyptian revolution. And guess what? The rest of the officer corps accepted Morsi’s decision.
Even as the spokesman was announcing that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister, and the army chief of staff were being retired, State television was showing other military officers being sworn in by Morsi as their successors. You could not ask for clearer evidence of the Egyptian officer corps’ collective decision to accept the results of last year’s revolution and the subsequent election that brought Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Especially since the heads of the air force, air defence system and navy were removed from their posts at the same time.
Tantawi, 76 years old and defence minister for the past 20 years, was probably surprised to find himself alone in trying to sabotage the newly elected civilian government. He was chosen by the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to keep the military on top, and he worked hard for that goal. However, most Egyptian military officers are much younger than him, and they see the world differently. Just two months ago, it looked like game, set and match to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Tantawi — which was essentially the old regime minus its former head, Mubarak.
Only 48 hours before the results of the presidential election were to be announced last June, the Supreme Constitutional Court issued a decree dissolving the parliament. They said the rules on the eligibility of candidates had been misinterpreted in some districts. But their real aim was to get rid of a parliament where the Islamic parties had won most of the seats.
Right to remove
Then, as the presidential votes were being counted and it was becoming clear that Morsi would win, the Scaf issued decrees that gave it the sole right to call a new parliamentary election and to write the constitution under which it would be held. It also stripped the incoming president of any right to control the armed forces, and in particular to appoint or dismiss military officers in senior jobs. Morsi refused to recognize the legality of these decrees, but he did not openly confront the military either. He just waited for the military high command to make a really embarrassing mistake —which it duly did.
Islamist fanatics had taken advantage of Egypt’s revolution, which distracted everybody’s attention from keeping the militants under control, to create bases in the Sinai peninsula, near the country’s border with Israel. On August 5, they attacked an Egyptian border post and slaughtered 16 guards. In their own fevered imaginations, they were killing collaborators who were hindering true Muslims like themselves from making attacks on Israel. In the minds of most Egyptians, they had murdered 16 young Egyptian men whose only crime was serving their country. Morsi seized the opportunity to dismiss General Murad Mowafi, the head of military intelligence, for failing to forestall the atrocity. Mowafi’s post made him one of the most powerful men in the country, but nobody wanted to defend him after such an abject failure of intelligence. By this action, Morsi had successfully asserted his right to remove military commanders despite the Scaf’s June decree to the contrary.
Egypt now has a democratically elected civilian government that exercises real control over both domestic and foreign policy for the first time in its history. What Morsi will do with that power remains to be seen, but he has certainly won the chance to use it.