Earlier this year, most analysts in Egypt assessed Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi as the key figure in that country’s politics and President Mohamed Morsi as a lightweight, so it came as a surprise when Morsi fired Tantawi on Aug. 12, 2012.
This matters because Tantawi would have kept the country out of Islamist hands while Morsi is speedily moving the country in the direction of applying Islamic law. If Morsi succeeds at this, the result will have major negative implications for America’s standing in the region.
Tantawi, then the effective ruler of Egypt, had handpicked Morsi to become president, seeing him as the safest option, someone who could be manipulated or (if necessary) replaced. Toward this end, Tantawi instructed the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) to approve Morsi as a candidate, despite his arrest on Jan. 27, 2011, for “treason and espionage,” his time in prison, and despite the SCC having excluded other Muslim Brotherhood candidates, especially the rich, charismatic, and visionary Khairat El-Shater, on the basis of their own imprisonment. Tantawi wanted the obscure, inelegant, and epileptic Morsi to run for president because Shater was too dangerous and another Brotherhood candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fettouh, too popular.What happened?
Sometimes after Morsi became president on June 30, Tantawi openly signaled his intent to overthrow him via a mass demonstration to take place on Aug. 24. His mouthpiece Tawfik Okasha openly encouraged a military coup against Morsi. But Morsi acted first and took several steps on Aug. 12: he annulled the constitutional declaration limiting his power, dismissed Tantawi, and replaced him with Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the head of military intelligence.
Morsi, in brief, pre-empted the impending military coup d’état against him. Tarek al-Zomor, a leading jihadi and Morsi supporter, acknowledged that “choosing Sissi to replace Tantawi was to stop a coup,” publicly acknowledging Morsi’s urgent need to act before Aug. 24. Hamdi Kandil, one of Egypt’s most prominent journalists, rightly characterized Morsi’s act as “a civilian coup.”
They missed one hidden factor: Brotherhood-oriented military officers turn out to have been far more numerous and powerful than previously realized: they both knew about the Aug. 24 plot plan and helped Morsi to beat it. If it was long apparent that some officers had an outlook sympathetic to the Brotherhood, the extent of their network has only just come out in the three months since the coup. How did Morsi pull it off? How did the lamb slaughter the butcher? Why did so many analysts not see this coming?
For example, we now know that Major General Abbas Mekheimar, the army officer assigned to oversee the purge of officers with Brotherhood or other Islamist affiliations, himself is aligned with the Brotherhood or perhaps a member of it. As for Sissi, while the Brotherhood denies his direct membership, one of its leaders says he belongs to its informal “family” – which makes sense, seeing that high-ranking public figures best advance its agenda when not formal members. His position as head of military intelligence gave him access to information about Tantawi’s Aug. 24 planned coup and historian Ali Al-Ashmawi found that Sissi tracked military officials loyal to Tantawi and had them discharged.
Where does this leave matters? Tantawi and company are safely pensioned off, and (unlike Hosni Mubarak) are not going to jail. Sissi’s military has retreated to roughly the same position that Tantawi’s military occupied before Mubarak’s overthrow in Feb. 2011, which is to say it is allied with the president and following his leadership without being fully subordinate to him. It retains control over its own budget, its promotions and dismissals, and its economic empire.
But the military leadership lost the direct political power that it enjoyed for 1½ years in 2011-12. In retrospect, this network should not be a great surprise, for it has a precedent: the Brotherhood had infiltrated the military in the 1940s, standing behind the “Free Officers” movement that overthrew King Farouq in 1952. After having been shut out in the period 1954-74, the Muslim Brotherhood then rebuilt its network of officers in ways invisible and unknown to outside observers, including ourselves. One top Brotherhood figure,Tharwat al-Kharabawi, now acknowledges that some of the organization’s members “became high-ranking leaders in the military.”
Morsi’s future is far from assured. Not only does he face competing factions of Islamists but Egypt faces a terrible economic crisis. Morsi’s power today unquestionably brings major short-term benefits for himself and the Brotherhood; but in the long term it will likely discredit Brotherhood rule.
In short, following thirty years of stasis under Mubarak, Egypt’s political drama has just begun.