The Morsi Maneuver: a first take

I hate to come out with a full-fledged analysis as the full picture of today’s news from Egypt is still coming out, but the importance of Morsi’s changes to the military and cancellation of the terrible June 17 Supplementary Constitutional Declaration deserves some comment. Here is my preliminary take, which I will no doubt revise in coming days and that is not exhaustive. Please leave what I’m missing out on in the comments.

I’d divide what happened today in two parts. First, what has changed in the military:

  • Defense Minister and SCAF head Hussein Tantawi, who will be replaced by Head of Military Intelligence AbdelLatif El-Sissi
  • Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Sami Enan.
  • Both Tantawi and Enan have been named presidential advisors, and were recently awarded the Order of the Nile medal. It appears they will be protected from punishment for their actions during the transitional period.
  • The heads of every service of the Armed Forces (Air Force, Air Defenses, Navy) were also retired but were given golden parachutes (one is now head of the Suez Canal Authority, another the new Minister of Military Production, etc.) It appears they will be replaced by their deputies.
  • There seems to be more personnel changes and shuffles — but mostly within the logic of promotion typical of the Egyptian military (i.e. no people were suddenly dropped into the senior ranks from lower ranks or outside the senior staff).

The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity.

The really surprising thing is that for months there had been reports of positioning within the military-intelligence nexus for the succession battle for post-Tantawy. Leading candidates were Sami Enan, recently fired Head of General Intelligence Mourad Mowafy and to a lesser extent El-Sissi. There were also inconsistent speculation (from well-informed sources with direct SCAF access) about the relationship between El-Sissi and Mowafi. El-Sissi’s appointment is consistent with the idea that he long was one of the most powerful (but less obviously so) members of SCAF, and Enan’s departure is quite striking.

This continuity suggests to me that we are dealing with a reconfigured SCAF that is nonetheless a powerful entity that still has powers parallel to the presidency and other civilian institutions. It is not, as the initial reaction to today’s news largely was, a victory by Morsi over the military. Rather, it is a reconfiguration of the relationship.

Even so, it does appear the presidency comes out reinforced. This is the second part of the major changes announced today. Morsi also declared though a four-article decree that:

  • the June 17 Supplemental Constitutional Declaration is annulled;
  • the president has assumed the powers outlined in Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration, i.e. the powers previously held by SCAF
  • the president will, through a national consultation, appoint a new Constituent Assembly within 15 days if the president does not complete its task. A new constituent assembly would prepare a new constitution within three months, be referred to a national referendum within 30 days of completion, and once adopted would be followed by new parliamentary elections within two months.

It’s hard to think of a way to avoid this considering the lack of alternatives and the mess Egypt is in, but Morsi has effectively, on paper, dictatorial powers. It will largely come down to how he uses them, especially as the last thing Egypt needs is a government unable to make decisions and address urgent problems simply because the parliament is not in place.

The appointment of Mahmoud Mekky, a senior judge, as vice-president closes the hole left by the delay in appointing any vice-president. The choice is not a bad one and may help Morsi in his fight with the senior ranks of the judiciary. Of course many will still wait for the Christian and female VPs he promised to appoint (and it would have been smarter to make moves in those directions at the same time.)

Overall, I think this is a very welcome move. But it does not necessarily change much aside from break the deadlock over the constitutional declaration. These moves will be seen by many opponents of the Brotherhood as a power grab, and the fact that Morsi has amassed considerable power (again, on paper) is indeed cause for concern. The power to appoint a new constitutional assembly is particularly key, if he ends up using it, I certainly hope it will be to appoint something acceptable to non-Islamists rather than impose the one Islamists wanted earlier this year (unfortunately, the MB’s sense of electoral entitlement makes me pessimistic here). How Morsi navigates this in the next few weeks will be crucial, as well as how secular parties and movements react, particularly considering their unwillingness to work with the MB in recent weeks. Some of these just want to sabotage Morsi and see the MB fail. Some openly called for a military coup against him.

I’m not in Egypt at the moment so it’s tough for me to get a sense of what the mood is, but I would not be surprised if public opinion backs not so much Morsi but the sense of things finally moving forward again. But I am really unable to say whether, apart from breaking the deadlock, it will be a positive development in the long term. The possibility of a new MB-military understanding is still there, and it’s what appears to be underpinning today’s news. In other words, Egypt got rid of military leaders who outstayed their welcome, but may instead get a more subtle military leadership that is better able to work out an understanding with a Muslim Brotherhood that seems attached to a majoritarian idea of democracy, and of course remains generally illiberal. But at least, it gets rid of what was an untennable form of direct military rule and empowers an elected civilian president. Let's hope he uses his new powers wisely.