Such is the power of Ryanmania that only now are we getting around to this story.
Remember how the military junta was going to keep Egypt’s new Islamist president on a tight leash?
Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, has dismissed the head of the armed forces and defence minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, according to the country’s state news agency…
Yasser Ali, the presidential spokesperson, said in a news conference aired on state TV on Sunday, that Morsi appointed a new defence minister, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Tantawi headed the military council that ruled Egypt for 17 months after Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011…
Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Sherine Tadros, reporting from Cairo, said the president’s spokesperson made the surprising announcement on state television.
Morsi tried confronting the junta a month ago by calling parliament back into session after the Egyptian supreme court ruled that it had been unconstitutionally elected. That gambit was a test of strength, but it didn’t lead to any sustained push against the military by the MB so I thought Morsi had backed down and resigned himself to power-sharing for awhile. Wrong. Evidently, he was just lying low and picking his spots. That spot came last week when 16 Egyptian troops were killed by jihadis in the Sinai peninsula; that was Morsi’s pretext to fire the country’s intelligence chief, who was well regarded by U.S. and Israeli intelligence. And yes, needless to say, the fact that an Islamist president ended up benefiting politically from an attack by Islamist militants does indeed feel awfully convenient.
Having gotten away with dumping the intel chief, Morsi apparently decided it was time to play for the jackpot and dump Tantawi, the leader of the junta, too. Question: Er, how was he able to do that? Tantawi was the military’s supreme commander, which means either (a) he was willing to be removed and told his subordinates not to resist Morsi’s order or (b) he tried to resist but his subordinates sided with Morsi. The latter theory isn’t unthinkable: The junta is fantastically unpopular with the public and the Sinai attack was an embarrassment to Tantawi, so maybe the rest of the brass decided a shake-up was in order. Most of the commentary I’ve read today, though, agrees with the first theory, that Tantawi knew Egypt was descending into chaos and decided it was time to make a deal with the Brotherhood for a luxurious retirement. Rather than watch the country descend into a Syrian nightmare, with himself in the Assad role, Tantawi figured he was better off tossing Morsi the keys in return for the Brotherhood’s promise of immunity for crimes committed by the junta over the past 18 months. Either way, according to the AP, the army seems to be fine with Morsi’s move, possibly because some of the military officers newly elevated by Morsi are Islamist “sleepers” who’ve been waiting for the party to make a move like this on the generals.
The upshot, per Barry Rubin, means that we now have a de facto Islamist dictator in charge of the most important Sunni state in the Middle East:
Does he have a right to do this? Who knows? There’s no constitution. That means all we were told about not having to worry because the generals would restrain the Brotherhood was false. Moreover, the idea that the army, and hence the government, may fear to act lest they lose U.S. aid will also be false. There is no parliament at present. He is now the democratically elected dictator of Egypt. True, he picked another career officer but he has now put forward the principle: he decides who runs the army. The generals can still advise Mursi. He can choose to listen to them or not. But there is no more dual power in Egypt but only one leader. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which has run Egypt since February 2011 is gone. Only Mursi remains and Egypt is now at his mercy.
Oh and to put the icing on the cake, Mursi will apparently decide who will be on the commission that writes the new Constitution…
This is a coup. Mursi is bound by no constitution. He can do as he pleases unless someone is going to stop him. And the only candidate–the military–is fading fast, far faster than even we pessimists would have predicted.
Morsi controls state media too, of course. And even if he decides not to rule as an absolute dictator, the Brotherhood-dominated parliament will end up acting as a rubber stamp. Near as I can tell, unless there’s some sort of new military power hiding behind the throne that approved of Tantawi’s dismissal and is prepared to pull the strings of government, there are only two real restraints on Morsi right now. One is money: The fact that his newly appointed defense minister is well known to the U.S. rather than some Islamist radical suggests that he’s willing to make some concessions to stay in the west’s good graces and keep the foreign aid flowing. The other is the judiciary. The supreme court opposed the Brotherhood once before by invalidating parliament. What happens if they turn around and decide that his firing of Tantawi and his attempt to appoint the new constitutional committee are both illegal? Possibly anticipating that, Morsi went ahead and named a top Egyptian judge his new vice president too, signaling to the judiciary that if they play ball with the Brotherhood’s new power grab, there’s something in it for them.
The last potential roadblock here is a popular backlash against the MB’s consolidation of power, but we heard lots of stories about that before the presidential election and Morsi won anyway. At the very least, I’d bet Egyptians are willing to give “democracy,” Islamist style, a shot for awhile before dreaming of a new junta. Exit question: Any reaction from the White House on this? If there’s been some strong objection, I missed it.