Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi has done the unthinkable – asserting civilian supremacy over the military. This was an act that was supposed to be way beyond the capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood for quite a while. Something precipitated it.
Six decades of Egypt’s political history have been punctuated. But this is more than a turn in the tide of history. Countries far and near – United States, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, in particular – will be keenly watching.
There is a hush in the air. To be sure, the United States and Israel are shell-shocked. Israel, which is never at a loss for words, is speechless. The ouster of Field marshal Mohammed Tantawiw, Egypt’s Defence Minister, on Sunday removes the US’s number 1 interlocutor-cum-collaborator in the Cairo power calculus.
Washington seems to have completely misread the Egyptian political landscape. As recently as two weeks ago, US defence secretary Leon Panetta had visited Cairo and rounded off his trip feeling convinced that Tantawi and Morsi were getting along just fine. In a remark that will haunt him today, Panetta had said, «It is my view, based on what I have seen [in Cairo], that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends».
What Panetta meant was that the US’ interests in Cairo were safe, no matter Egypt’s democratic transition and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, so long as Tantawi was in command. The influential Washington Post columnist David Ignatius who is wired into the US establishment summed up the acuteness of the US administration’s current dilemma:
«What’s indisputable is that the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a longtime member, has now tightened its grip on Egypt, controlling the military as well as the presidency and the parliament. That’s either an example of democracy in action and civilian control of the military, or a Muslim Brotherhood putsch, depending on your viewpoint. It probably has elements of both».
Ignatius added, «Morsi’s moves have come up with the suddenness of a coup». Evidently, there has been an intelligence failure in Washington. The first reaction by the White House on Monday was one of resignation. "It is important for the Egyptian military and civilian (government) to work closely together to address the economic and security challenges facing Egypt," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "We hope that President Morsi's announcement will serve the interests of the Egyptian people… and we will continue to work with Egypt's civilian and military leaders to advance our many shared interests."
The US understands that it is not within its power to reverse what has happened. Sunday’s events testify to the dramatic decline in the US’ influence in Egypt in the past year. But Washington has quickly covered up by arguing that the new defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sissi appointed by Morsi is a «known» figure who underwent training at a US staff college some three decades ago.
This is parrying the real issue. The heart of the matter is that Morsi’s move goes far beyond a matter of new military faces. He also cancelled the constitutional declaration aimed at curbing presidential powers and gave the military legislative powers and other prerogatives. He has amended the interim constitution to deny the military any role in public policymaking, the budget and any role in picking a constituent assembly for drafting a new constitution. This is nothing short of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood of the levers of power.
Clearly, Morsi has acted according to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership’s collective decision. It is a considered decision and its ramifications for the future trajectory of Egyptian policies remain to be seen. Ignatius summed up, «The Israelis are said to be more concerned by Sunday’s purge, worrying that Morsi is taking a series of steps that may be leading toward a collision with Jerusalem. But for both the United States and Israel, watching developments in Egypt is a bit like riding a tiger – potentially very dangerous, but impossible to steer».
What the US (and Israel) needs to weigh in carefully at the moment is the connection between the terrorist attack in Sinai on August 5 and Morsi’s decision to crack the whip on the military. The point is, there is a connection.
A Hollywood script
Indeed, Washington swiftly followed up on the Sinai terrorist attack to offer to the Egyptian military a package of assistance. No sooner than the terrorist strike took place, Israel also promptly presented itself as the best ally Egypt could ever think of having in such dangerous times. However, the Muslim Brotherhood pointedly held Israel’s Mossad responsible for stage-managing the Sinai attack.
Significantly, Morsi’s first key change last Thursday following the mysterious terrorist strike in Sinai on August 5 was the sacking of the intelligence chief, Gen. Murad Muwafi, who was widely regarded as the single most valuable «strategic asset» of the US (and Israel) within the Egyptian security establishment.
Simply put, the Brothers are wary of the US attempts to bring terrorism on to the centre stage of the Egyptian discourse at this juncture when Morsi is yet to consolidate his hold on the power structure. For, the Brothers know that if the locus shifts to a «war on terrorism», it will inevitably push Cairo to seek security cooperation with Washington (and Tel Aviv) – an eventuality that will hurt Morsi’s standing and erode his political base. Besides, that will also be an agenda that puts the military incrementally on the driving seat for a long time to come.
In fact, in the recent weeks, the US has been pushing the envelope. Last month, when the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Panetta visited Cairo, they demanded that the Egyptian military should act robustly against the militants operating in Sinai. Washington counted on the Egyptian military to bind more closely the country’s ties with the US in a shared «war on terror» in the Sinai. The US held out the promise of increased security assistance to the Egyptian military.
Soon after her visit to Cairo, Clinton told CNN, «We have Americans in the Sinai. We’ve had a few concerns about their safety. So this is not only about Egypt and Israel, it’s also about the United States and other members of that multinational force. So it’s in everyone’s interest that we work together to make sure that security is in place in Sinai».
That is to say, Clinton implies that the presence of the 700 US soldiers in the international peacekeeping force in Sinai (under the Camp David treaty) made it obligatory for Washington to intervene to ensure that Morsi’s government does not deviate from the policy pursued by Hosni Mubarak toward Sinai (which involves close coordination and cooperation with Israel). In sum, it was a barely-disguised warning regarding the «red line».
It is plain common sense that the Sinai is a lawless no-man’s land where Israeli intelligence is very active. Unsurprisingly, the August 5 attacks raise a number of questions for which there are really no easy answers. The attacks took place soon after Morsi received Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and ordered the gradual lifting of restrictions at the Rafah crossing, which made a mockery of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Quite obviously, Morsi’s policy course correction on Gaza and his bonhomie with the Hamas leadership set the alarm bells ringing in Washington and Tel Aviv.
Suffice to say, Washington and Tel Aviv were becoming increasingly optimistic of late following the visits to Cairo by Clinton and Panetta that the Egyptian military leadership could be counted upon to pursue the Mubarak-era foreign policy orientations toward Israel. But Sunday’s events have scattered this optimism.
Clearly, from Sunday onward, the buck stops with Morsi. The reality of the situation today is that only the judiciary remains outside the control of the Egyptian presidency. And neither the US nor Israel has a clue as to which way the mind of the Brothers will be working in the coming period.