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Morsi and the Egyptian Military Shuffle

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 14, 2012

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Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi "gets good marks" so far for his handling of the reshuffling of the top ranks of the Egyptian military, says Steven A. Cook, CFR's top Egypt expert. But Cook points out that because of Morsi's background as a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, there is "concern now among remnants of the old regime, people who enjoy a secular lifestyle, Coptic Christians, and others, about what the intentions of the Brotherhood are," since many of these people have counted on the military to keep the Brotherhood down. "The Brotherhood counters that this is a clarifying moment, that there cannot be an environment where there is a duality of powers and that President Morsi is only taking steps to create a civil state, which is what Egyptians have said that they want," Cook says.

Over the weekend there was a surprise announcement by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that the top leadership of the Egyptian military has been reshuffled; the top two officers as well as all of the service chiefs were retired with honors and a younger crew has taken over. The new head of the Egyptian military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, appears to be someone the U.S. military is quite comfortable with since they have been working together for many years. What do you make of all this?

There is a tremendous amount of speculation about what has happened, how it has happened, and what's going to happen. President Morsi is doing what any new leader in his situation would do, which is to consolidate his own power. The way in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi had set things up, was that there would be essentially dual decision making in Egypt. You would have the president who would be responsible for some things, while SCAF and the armed forces would be responsible for defense and national security issues, broadly defined. That necessarily impinged on the powers of the presidency, so we can presume that President Morsi and the people around him had reached out to younger officers just below the leadership--although the new minister of defense, General el-Sissi, did serve on SCAF--and offered them promotions, which they readily accepted at the expense of Field Marshal Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Enan, the chief of staff.

Has there been any commentary from the military?

No, there hasn't, and people keep expecting some sort of response from somewhere. It seems to me that President Morsi has secured the loyalty of the officers that he has appointed, [and] Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Enan don't have any recourse but to retire. There is no one now who is going to stand up and respond; at least, that's what it seems. We'll have to see what happens next.

President Morsi is doing what any new leader in his situation would do, which is to consolidate his own power.

In Egypt, there have been many twist and turns since the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak, but until now we haven't seen any kind of response from the military to the retirement of Tantawi and Enan. That's not suggesting that it won't come, or that Morsi's decision won't have a polarizing effect on Egyptian society. There are people who are already deeply concerned and mistrustful of the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood, and saw SCAF under Field Marshal Tantawi as an insurance policy against the Muslim Brotherhood overreaching and trying to implement what people perceive to be its agenda. There's obviously concern now among remnants of the old regime, people who enjoy a secular lifestyle, Coptic Christians, and others, about what the intentions of the Brotherhood are. The Brotherhood counters that this is a clarifying moment, that there cannot be an environment where there is a duality of powers and that President Morsi is only taking steps to create a civil state, which is what Egyptians have said that they want.

What do we know about the new head of the military, General el-Sissi?

We don't know all that much about hm. At fifty-seven years old, he is the youngest member of SCAF, and is considerably younger than Field Marshal Tantawi, who is seventy-six, or Lieutenant General Enan, who is sixty-four. He was in the infantry and most recently he was the head of the military intelligence. The senior U.S. military leadership generally had interactions with Field Marshal Tantawi and Lieutenant General Enan, I don't know what the quality of the relationship was like at the more senior levels with General el-Sisi, but it stands to reason given that he was the head of military intelligence, that there was some connection in between the United States and him. But there really isn't much that is known.

The Wall Street Journal today says that General el-Sisi had dinner in October with President Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, during a visit to Cairo.

My guess is that this was not an intimate dinner for two. It would make sense for John Brennan to be interacting with the head of military intelligence in Egypt. There have been a number of things that the United States has been concerned about; one is the deteriorating situation in Sinai and the existence of sympathizers to a variety of extreme organizations that operate in the Sinai. The United States has actually been concerned about this for much of the past decade but was unable to get the Egyptians really terribly interested in this. And there has been an ongoing conversation with the Egyptian military about altering Egypt's military doctrine to focus more on these counterterrorist threats rather than the kind of big tank battles and air battles that the Egyptian military seems to want to be equipped for.

Talk about the Sinai fighting. In recent days we had this unexpected explosion in the Sinai where jihadists killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers, leading to major counterattacks. The Israelis got involved on the border, and Egyptian tanks were flowing into the Sinai. Is this a kind of wakeup call or what?

The situation in Sinai has been deteriorating for some time. Israelis have been concerned about this for quite some time, but beginning last summer, when there was an attempted infiltration on the part of extremists into Israel from the Sinai, the issue has been more front and center in the relationship between Egypt and Israel than it had been previously. The Egyptian military is restricted by the 1979 peace treaty in how many forces it can put in the Sinai, but since the uprising, the Israelis have been rather flexible with Egyptian requests to put more forces in the Sinai. And Israelis in fact said to Egyptians "by all means, deploy seven battalions into the Sinai," but the Egyptians can only rally two. Last summer Egypt undertook an operation called Operation Eagle, which was a failure and didn't do much to secure the Sinai. The situation has been festering ever since.

The problem in the Sinai is not simple. You have weapons smuggling, drug smuggling, human trafficking, which is primarily done by Bedouins in the area. You have Bedouins who are engaged against the security forces because of the way the government in Cairo has treated them, people are angry about the limited economic opportunity in Sinai and the lack of public services. And then of course you have Palestinian sympathizers, jihadist sympathizers, al-Qaeda sympathizers, the so-called Takfiri (pdf), people who have left the Egyptian society to build a perfect Islamic society in the Sinai. So it's a multilayered and complex problem that has been allowed to fester over a long period of time. Essentially Egypt has limited sovereignty over its own territory in the Sinai.

President Morsi has been in office now for two months. Would you give him a good grade?

Most analysts were expecting there to be some sort of confrontation if Morsi tried to get out from under the restrictions that the military had placed on him, but nobody really expected it to happen so soon.

It's hard to grade. There's something called the Morsi meter, where people are tracking what he has done. Of course it's early, it's only been two months, but people have complained that little has changed, and every move that Morsi makes is seen by some as a sinister move. But he has made the most of the situation that the Sinai helped create in order to consolidate his power. Most analysts were expecting there to be some sort of confrontation if Morsi tried to get out from under the restrictions that the military had placed on him, but nobody really expected it to happen so soon and I think that the recent incidents in the Sinai have provided an opportunity for him. In the broad abstract, moving the military out of politics and potentially changing the balance of civil-military relations in Egypt is overall a good thing. But it all depends now on what Morsi's next move is. At the moment, he holds executive and legislative power. There's an accumulation of power in the presidency but that that's not what the uprising was about. The problem with Mubarak and the perennial problem in Egyptian politics has been the overwhelming power of the executive at the expense of the other branches of government. We now have to see what happens with the new constitution. The constituent assembly is supposed to report on a draft quite soon. Morsi gets good marks for trying to bring the military under his heel, but it's also too early to tell what direction Morsi is going to go now that he seems to have mastered the military.

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