Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi’s spokesman 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 Gen. Sami Enan, the army chief of staff, were being retired, state television was showing other military officers, Gens. Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi and Sidki Sobhi, being sworn in by President 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 popular 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 practically alone in trying to sabotage the newly elected civilian government. He was chosen by former dictator Husni Mubarak to keep the military on top, and he worked hard for that goal. However, most Egyptian military officers are between thirty and fifty years younger than him, and they see the world differently.
Egyptian military officers are a privileged caste who enjoy a far better living standard than other government employees of comparable education and skills, but nobody (at least for the moment) is trying to take that away from them. So if their lifestyle is secure, why risk it all by attacking an elected government and bringing the mobs back out into the streets?
Egyptian officers are also, in most cases, patriots who want to see their country become a prosperous, honestly run place. They knew very well that the old regime (whose remnants, like Tantawi, still controlled all the senior military posts) had failed dismally in that regard. Many were reluctant to let an Islamic party like Morsi’s take full control of the country even though the voters chose it, but they now seem willing to take the chance.
Just two months ago it looked like game, set and match to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, led by Field Marshal Tantawi, which was essentially the old regime minus its former head, Hosni Mubarak.
Only 48 hours before the results of the presidential election were to be announced last June, the Supreme Constitutional Court (whose judges were all appointed by the old regime) issued a decree dissolving the parliament that was elected eight months ago. 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.
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 Aug. 5, they attacked an Egyptian border post and slaughtered sixteen guards.
In their own fevered imaginations, they were justly killing collaborators who were hindering true Muslims like themselves from making attacks on Israel. In the minds of most Egyptians, they had murdered sixteen innocent young Egyptian men whose only crime was serving their country. Morsi seized the opportunity to dismiss Gen. 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. He went quietly — and by this action Morsi had successfully asserted his right to remove military commanders despite the SCAF’s June decree to the contrary.
The most important political skill is remembering your ultimate objectives, but biding your time until some passing event creates an opening for getting what you want. When the officer corps did not resist Mowafi’s dismissal, Morsi knew that he could win a head-on confrontation with Tantawi and his cronies. They knew it too, and so they went quietly.
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.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.