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What Egypt's President Is Up To

6:10 PM, Aug 15, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Amr Bargisi, a senior partner at the Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth, explains that he was told by senior Egyptian sources more than a month ago that “the top military brass had put off the operation until Morsi formed the government.” The idea evidently was that as defense minister, Tantawi would initiate a large-scale operation in the Sinai shutting down the corridors and perhaps even tunnels connecting Sinai to Gaza. This campaign would put Hamas on the spot and by extension embarrass Morsi and the Brotherhood as well, now portrayed not just as friends of Hamas but supporters of jihadi militants in the Sinai. As Bargisi explains, “Tantawi wanted to show that the president is irrelevant, that SCAF still runs the show when it comes to big strategic questions that concern the Americans and Israelis.”

The problem for Tantawi was that the rest of the army knew that the defense minister was to blame for sacrificing 16 Egyptian lives so that he could send a message to Morsi. “The army was happy to see him go,” says Bargisi. “They’re relieved.”

Indeed, the younger officers are apparently galvanized by Morsi’s decision to get rid of Tantawi. Morsi seems to have understood that the Egyptian military is not a pyramid so much as institution roiling with competing ambitions. If the top brass is on the face of things the most powerful, history shows that it is the younger officers—from Gamal abdel Nasser to the military cadre that killed Sadat—who are potentially most dangerous to anyone who would rule Egypt. For the time being anyway, Morsi has them on his side. 

All of Morsi’s new appointments owe their advancement to him. Tantawi’s replacement, the 57-year-old Sisi, previously filled a variety of posts in the Egyptian army. Like Sami Enan, he also has good connections in Washington, including with senior Obama administration officials, like counterterrorism czar John Brennan. Sisi’s tenure as military attaché in Saudi Arabia may have won him friends in Riyadh, which would benefit Morsi and the Brotherhood, whose relationship with the kingdom is often strained. The Wall Street Journal reports that Sisi is said to be sympathetic to the Brotherhood, but regardless of his political sympathies, what perhaps made him most attractive to Morsi was his last posting, as head of military intelligence.

The purpose of Morsi’s reshuffling is not exclusively to keep the army in hand, it is also to consolidate control over the security portfolio. With the firing of Muwafi, Morsi got rid of a Mubarak holdover who took the GID job when Omar Suleiman was named vice president shortly before Mubarak’s downfall. In his stead, Morsi named Mohamed Raafat Shehata. The president of Egypt needs the Egyptian army to wage military operations, but it is only the intelligence services that will keep him in power, or alive.

Perhaps, as some analysts have argued, Morsi’s personnel decisions show that he is “implementing a degree of accountability” not often present in Egyptian governance. However, his abrogation of constitutional powers granted to SCAF in the March 2011 has others concerned.

David Schenker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains that in addition to the right “to appoint civilian and military employees and political representatives,” Morsi also “assumed powers granted to the SCAF under Article 56 of the interim constitution, including the right to ‘legislate’ … to ‘issue public policy for the state and the public budget and ensure its implementation,’ to ‘sign international treaties and agreements.’”

It’s this last clause that may be the most worrisome. “In addition to the right to sign treaties,” Schenker says, “Morsi presumably has the right to abrogate them, too. Since the Muslim Brotherhood is already talking about revising Camp David, a president now holding unchecked powers is troubling, to say the least.”

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