In Switch, Egypt’s Civilian President Makes Coup against Generals

This is BIG.

The BBC says that Egypt’s elected president, from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, has just ordered the firing of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the 23-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He also ordered the Army Chief of Staff and another SCAF stalwart, Gen. Sami Anan, to retire.

The president said that both Tantawi and Anan would remain “advisers” to the president and gave Tantawi the Order of the Nile for his service.

He replaced Anan with Major-Gen. Sidqi Subhi as army chief of staff. Subhi had been commander of the 3rd Field Army in Suez and had played a role in convincing SCAF to allow a militant Muslim fundamentalist from Suez, Hafiz Salamah, to leave a mosque in al-Abbasiya during a violent confrontation between Salafis and the military there in May.

I had suggested that Egypt since Morsi’s election has been sort of like Turkey in the 1990s and early zeroes, with ‘dual sovereignty,’ vested both in an elected, civilian government and a powerful ‘deep state’ or military establishment. I proposed that over time, elected authority has more legitimacy and that Egypt could move in the direct of Turkey in the past half-decade, wherein the elected government has gradually gotten the upper hand over the military.

I didn’t expect the process to take a month and a half, but many years.

Tantawi had insisted on being the Minister of Defense, and has been replaced by Abdul Fattah al-Sissi.

Morsi made a senior judge, Mahmoud Makki, his vice president. Makki has been an activist for judicial independence from the government, leading a 2006 demonstration of jurists for this cause. He had also supported the amendment of the constitution in 2005 to allow more than one candidate to run for president (before then Hosni Mubarak used to have referendums with himself the only choice, which he could not lose).

Morsi further declared null and void the ‘supplementary declarations’ serving to limit his power, issued by SCAF last June.

Morsi says that he consulted the other officers of SCAF about these changes. That datum, if true, makes this move sound a little like a junior officers’ coup enabled by the president.

What in the world is going on? The extensiveness of Morsi’s moves suggest an extreme conflict between him and Tantawi (and Anan).

On Saturday, Morsi’s government confiscated all copies of that day’s edition of al-Dustur, a Christian-owned newspaper that ran a front page article accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting to establish a fundamentalist Muslim Emirate (a la the Taliban in Afghanistan) in Egypt, and urging Egyptians to support the SCAF junta. Was the al-Dustur piece planted by Tantawi as a stalking horse for a move against Morsi? Or did Morsi think so?

The other big thing that has been going on is that Egypt’s military moved against fundamentalist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, who had attacked Egyptian troops. The Muslim Brotherhood was convinced that that attack was instigated somehow behind the scenes by the Israelis, to forestall Egypt from opening the border crossing at Rafah into the Gaza Strip (which abuts the Sinai). Gaza has been under an illegal and cruel blockade of its civilian population by the Israelis since 2007, in which the Hosni Mubarak government of Egypt rather gleefully participated. The Muslim Brotherhood wants the blockade lifted on the Egyptian side.

The attack by shadowy militants in Sinai (one of a long series of such attacks; they tried to take El Arish when I was in Egypt last summer) gave Tantawi the opportunity to put military priorities to the fore, and Morsi was put in the position of having to go to the front and cheer on the troops in their fight against …. Muslim fundamentalists. The Sinai campaign renewed the Egyptian role as junior partner in the Israeli blockade of Gaza’s civilians, which was highly distasteful to Morsi’s base.

The reasons for what has happened are murky and while these two developments might be context for them, they might not. All I can say is, stay tuned.

37 Responses

  1. Excellent coverage and excellent news. While the military in Turkey was powerful, it did not have a powerful and organized party to oppose it. There were many small parties in Turkey, ranging from extreme right to extreme left. However, in Egypt the largest party from whose ranks Mursi emerges is behind the president. It is surprising that Mursi moved against the powerful military so soon after Secretary of State Clinton’s visit with her promise of continuing aid and closer links between the Egyptian and American armed forces.

    While it is good to see that the elected president is asserting himself so soon after assuming power, what one has to watch is that he does not misuse his powers and will not establish a fundamentalist government. So far so good!

    • Actually, Turkish political parties were pretty well organized. It is just that one major party was happy enough with military power, so there was no civilian united front.

  2. “This is BIG.” “What in the world is going on?” Writes Prof: Juan Cole.

    No one knows what will be the end result? It’s any body’s guess.

    It was the general belief during Vietnam War, called domino effect; if Vietnam goes communist, everyone else will go along it. America fought a lengthy unpopular war in Vietnam, killing over a million Vietnamese & taking casualties over 65 thousand of its own. However, it did not happen.

    What Arab spring has brought in the middle East, the dominos cultivated & erected by the west in the last thirty years or so, are falling one after the other.

    Ghaddafi, yah, he was a crazy guy, he was our friend he was our foe, he was a thorn in our throat. See warm hand shakes of Blair & Berluscone with Ghadafi. Same goes with two Assads of Syria. See Bush Sr sitting with Assad Sr. West’s good friends in Tunisia, Egypt & Yemen are all have fallen like domino chips.

    It was easy for USA to label Hamas a terrorist organization after it won the elections because it is a tiny place & foe to our dear friend next door, but we cannot apply same formula to the now powerful & maybe the oldest movement in the Middle East, The Muslim Brotherhood, in the most populace country in the ME, after Mr. Mursi’s elections.

    The effect of Arab Spring is not only felt in Israel, in a way it has arrived in Israel, while you see Jewish young people doused themselves with gasoline and burned to death against the policies of their government. Something un-imaginable in Israel.

    How the ME has changed in the last half a century, the sleepy little towns which the world did not know like Riyadh, Doha, Dubai & Abu Dhabi have became megalopolis cities. Mega universities of the world now have their satellite branches there, besides the countries have their own universities of higher learning & of high standard.

    Fall of Dominos in the ME is certainly shaking 10, Downing Street & the Oval office.

    And, if the predictions of Michael Hamilton Morgan come true, “That another Golden age of Islam has started, though press says otherwise…”.

    This will really shake the world. And, “What in the world is going on?” Writes Prof: Juan Cole.

    President Mursi getting rid of our another powerful ally in Egypt after Mubarak.

    It is really puzzling.

    • If by “over a million” Vietnamese dead you mean between two and three million, then yes it was over a million.

    • You write a very interesting commentary here, although I may misinterpret your sarcasm.
      Is “It is really puzzling” sarcastic? If so, you are not as wise as you are clever. The Muslim Brotherhood garnered about 30% popular support in recent elections. They ascended to presidency by trumping a divided and disorganized opposition. This hardly represents a domino falling, in the sense of a sweeping ideological wave. There is huge uncertainty about the days ahead, anybody who is not puzzled is fooling themself.

      Your emphasis on the posture of the USA and GB strikes me as rather old fashioned. The West has taken a hands-off approach to Egypt. I think most of the world wishes Egypt nothing more than democracy and peace. Outside countries have a self-interest in seeing stability – is that to be condemned?

      I fear for Egypt. I am not afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood per se – they would be fine in the context of democratic institutions. But we shouldn’t sweep the example of Algeria under the carpet. If Morsi and his party respect the spirit of democracy – fine. I don’t think it is correct to say that Hamas in Gaza are democrats. So lets not pretend that the Brotherhood’s ascension to power is yet cause for celebration for outsiders who wish Egypt well.

    • Fall of Dominos in the ME is certainly shaking 10, Downing Street & the Oval office.

      Nice theory. The only problem is, this particular White House supported each of those “dominoes” falling.

      Perhaps the rather lengthy tenures -ahem, ahem – of leaders in your region has obscured something about American politics: we change our presidents rather frequently, and they often have quite different approaches from their predecessors.

    • It was easy for USA to label Hamas a terrorist organization after it won the elections because it is a tiny place & foe to our dear friend next door, but we cannot apply same formula to the now powerful & maybe the oldest movement in the Middle East, The Muslim Brotherhood, in the most populace country in the ME, after Mr. Mursi’s elections.

      There’s also the fact that Hamas continues to support and carry out terrorist attacks, while the Muslim Brotherhood has been a peaceful political movement for over a decade.

      • To be fair, Hamas has concluded and observed long-term truces with the Israelis, some of which the Israelis broke. Many of the little rockets the Israelis blame on Hamas were actually launched by tiny groups not under their control.

  3. Perhaps Morsi is using the attack by the militants in the Sinai as a pretext to replace a military command that can be blamed for allowing it to happen.

  4. This development took me quite by surprise. Morsi is forcing the pace, daring Tantawi and the rest of the high command to launch a counter-coup.

    The president’s demarche seems to me premature and dangerous within the context of Egyptian internal politics. However, Morsi might have determined his timing in a broader international context, considering:

    1. A military coup could only succeed with Western–especially American–support.

    2. The Western regimes have all invested themselves in the Syrian affair. To abet an Egyptian coup while clamouring for action against Assad would be too obvious an hypocrisy even for their own tame publics to accept, let alone world opinion at large. What sort of thing could better prove Putin’s argument?

    3. The USA is heavily engaged in its own internal electoral process. For either of their presidential candidates to express support for Egyptian generals during this autumn would be embarrassing.

    In other words, while Morsi’s dismissal of Tantawi is probably premature within a wholly domestic context, his strategy might be superb in terms of the international power-political context. Morsi might have found a good moment to better advance the cause of Egypt’s self-determination, and Hillary Clinton might just have to stand aside and smile, while her country’s Egyptian clients get humiliated.

    • You know, I just cannot get why Morsi would be incapable of doing something major without the US enabling him. Strikes me what’s happened has been a complex and subtle matter of cutting a deal with the right people: not so much a coup as really good politics if he did it right.

      Otherwise I agree with pts 2 and 3, which do not support #1.

      Overall, wouldn’t you rate developments positively?

      Answering my own question, I suppose it depends on what we mean by positively….

    • There is zero evidence that the Obama administration views the Egyptian military as its client. Hilary Clinton’s public statements the past year have been that the military must step aside and allow democracy to proceed.

      Obama has taken considerable heat from domestic conservative pundits as a weak democrat, soft on the Muslim Brotherhood. Some international critics have the U.S.A. and G.B. penciled-in as old-school imperialist, hanging-on to their dictator puppets.

      Old habits die hard.

    • Hillary Clinton might just have to stand aside and smile, while her country’s Egyptian clients get humiliated.

      You’re talking about the administration that has, in the past year, worked to ease their “client” Mubarak out of office, while deploying their military officers to contact mid-level Egyptian military officers to urge them to ignore orders to fire on the Tahrir Square protesters. The notion that this administration views the Egyptian military command as a “client” is old-fashioned thinking that has been overtaken by events.

      That you need to come up with reasons to explain why the United States would refuse to back up a “client” should make that obvious. Since when has the United States not backed up friendly dictators against popular uprisings? Since 2011.

      • I’m sympathetic to your argument, but I don’t believe we know that anyone instructed mid-level military here to contact mid-level people there and ask them not to obey orders to fire at Tahrir. Obama’s actions were pretty supportive of Mubarak early in the crisis. He had Wisner go over and tell Mubarak to hold steady, after all.

  5. Morsi’s actions not premature at all.
    To put the military ‘under the government’ instead of visa versa it’s best for new leadership to act early and decisively to set the controls.

  6. Gaza: 3 Hamas Commanders Wanted By Egypt
    .

    Hamas terror chief wanted by Egypt for Sunday’s attack was involved in Shalit kidnapping

    (Times of Israel) – Raed Attar, who heads Gaza’s Qasam Brigades, is one of trio accused by Cairo of ‘indirect role’ in assault that killed 16 Egyptian troops and smashed into Israel at Kerem Shalom crosing.

    Al-Quds reported that the request to extradite the trio was sent to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh through Mahmoud A-Zahar, a Hamas official in Gaza. An unnamed security source told the daily that the three men are not suspected of perpetrating the attack, but of providing “indirect logistical support” to an extremist group in Sinai that carried it out.

    The source would not give Al-Quds the names of the three men, but security sources in Ramallah told the daily that they are Raed Attar, Ayman Nofal, and Muhammad Abu-Shamalah, all of whom are well-known tunnel smugglers in Gaza. The daily reported that Hamas agreed to hand over the men to the Egyptians, but they refused to go voluntarily, citing a fear of being tortured by the Egyptians. The men did agree to be questioned by the Egyptian intelligence inside the Gaza Strip.

    Sinai on the brink: Arms trafficking and the rise of Egypt’s Jihadist groups

    Al-Dostour’s issue confiscated for inciting sectarian strife in the case of the village of Dahshour

  7. Morsi’s opportunistic move is reminiscent of the Mathias Rust incident in 1987, when Gorbachev used the young pilot’s stunning breach of Soviet airspace as a pretext for sacking the top USSR military brass.

  8. What is happening in Egypt is confusing and nerve racking.

    The U.S. press has largely dropped coverage of Syria and Egypt. Both political parties (Dems & Repubs) are internally divided about appropriate U.S. positions.

  9. MB reported in early stage suspicion of a Mossad operation. Reminds me of the Reagan years and one of many false flag operations in the Middle-East.

    With its new authority, the CIA set up ‘counterterrorism units’. Casey quickly funded the “Foreign Work and Analysis Unit” (FWAU) inside Lebanon which had the assassination of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah as its first priority. Others targeted for death were Lebanese former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss, Imad Mughniyeh and Walid Jumblatt, then supporting the PLO. The FWAU conducted a car bombing campaign in Muslim areas of Beirut and targeted the Cinema Salwa, Beirut’s Raouche Market, Sabra Street, the Abu Nawwas restaurant, and the Druze Social Centre, among others, killing at least 280 civilians and wounding nearly 1,150.

  10. Any insight on this claim? “They will not have missed the sudden arrival of Egyptian army M-60 tanks (made in the US) right up to the Israeli border of Sinai while the new appointments were announced in Cairo”

  11. Since the election there have been a series of offsetting maneuvers between SCAF and Morsi. Looking at in their totality, they appear designed to either come out on top (intimidate) politically or to set the stage to settle things more directly (violently). It has struck me Morsi has been in a use-his legitimacy-or-loose-it situation since the election, and it wasn’t as though it was that empowering a victory to begin with. So whatever he wanted to do needed to be done promptly.

    If Morsi has essentially pulled off a junior officers coup, then SCAF’s understandable strategy of patience and undercutting will have collapsed. Given the age of the core cohort that supported Mubarek this seems very likely, as was their susceptibility to these “Young Turks,” (so to speak).

    If you’re right, and the relationship/deal he has cut with them holds, then there should be a foundation for real and ongoing stability. But what that portends for relations with Israel–and hence relations with the US— becomes a very open question, given the questionability of that relationship’s current legitimacy On The Street (I really do hate to use that phrase, but is there any another?)

  12. AND another thing….

    Reporter on Egyptian military moves in the Sinai have been disparaged. link to npr.org

    It sounds like a Potemkin sham, for the sake or just what? Could tie into this whole business, where the underlying illegitimacy of the Israel/Egyptian peace is prone to unravel at some point.

  13. Wow. If this is actually happening, it helps me understand why Morsi chose a cabinet that was not as broad as it might have been. If you are heading for a showdown, you want only people of known reliability at your side.
    If he already has some military support, the urgent move would be to ask the US to use its influence to reinforce military acceptance of this change.
    The other move would be to reassure Christians and liberals (and, hence, the outside world). If they can have faith that this is solidification of the revolution and democracy, instead of a harbinger of radicalization, Morsi might make this stick for the good of all. The actions against militants in Sinai may make such a stance the more credible.
    Wishful thinking, perhaps, but why not hold out for the best?

  14. Dear Professor Cole

    The events of yesterday give rise to more questions than answers. Apparenly heads of Air Force and navy have gone overboard too.

    link to ynetnews.com

    First of all the question ofthe Egyptian Economy remains open. Are they going to run out of money or are they going to get aloan from IMF?

    Second does publicly lining open the Christians with the army presage further problems between the faiths? The Christians are economically important.

    Third has the government now taken control of the military budget? That will upset the Gravy Train.

    Fourth will this instability on its southern front clip the wings of the warmongers in Jerusalem. It is quite striking to see the press comment in the Israeli press being about an attack on the Iranians this morning.

    link to jpost.com

  15. It will be interesting to see what the judiciary does, given that the top court has been working with and for SCAF up to now.

  16. “Was the al-Dustur piece planted by Tantawi as a stalking horse for a move against Morsi? Or did Morsi think so?”
    Unlikely – al Dostour is no friend of the military. They have run many articles critical of them during the time since the revolution. Their sympathies are more liberal and secularist.

  17. Juan, what do you believe this means for Egypt’s stability in the next year or so? Does a protracted, low-level conflict/rivalry between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood seem likely, or will it become something bigger? (The reason I ask is because I was planning on spending next summer in Egypt, and was worried there might be some conflict)

  18. GCC States Offer Billions, Don’t Insult MB or Morsy

    Egypt expects Qatar deposit within a week, minister says

    (Egypt Independent) – The Gulf emirate said on Saturday it would deposit $2 billion in all. The latest pledge from Qatar is one of several disbursements by the emirate to help out governments across the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring.

    Finance Minister Momtaz al-Saeed said officials had also discussed with a Libyan delegation that Tripoli might support Egypt’s depleted finances. Saudi Arabia stepped in with financial support in June, approving $430 million in project aid for Cairo and a $750 million credit line for oil imports.

    Prosecution refers media host, Al-Dostour editor to criminal court

    The prosecution accused Tawfiq Okasha of libel, defamation and inciting people to murder President Mohamed Morsy. Al-Dostour Editor-in-Chief Islam Afify was accused of spreading false news, data and rumors that insulted the president, thus disturbing public peace, harming public interesting, destabilizing the country and causing people to panic, said Deputy Public Prosecutor Adel al-Saeed.

  19. Some background about the Mursi coup

    Wouldn’t be surprised if the pardon and release of Jihadists added fuel to SCAF struggle with civilian administration. At least three of the released Islamists had been condemned to death, others include members of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, jailed during the group’s armed insurrection against the state in the 1990s, and Islamic Jihad, the movement behind the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. President Morsi relented to the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood to release more prisoners with blood on their hands. Releasing Islamists and fight the same groups in the Sinaï does not make much sense. The attack and death of 12 soldiers presented a great opportunity for Mursi to move and replace the military brass.

    Morsy grooms a new rank of officers, experts say

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