A blunder by the Egyptian army that left 16 border guards dead at the hands of Islamist militants gave president Mohamed Morsi an early chance to claw back powers from a military whose political influence he had always wanted to curb.
A week after the raid on Egypt’s Sinai border that outraged ordinary Egyptians and some soldiers, angry at what they saw as a failure in military leadership, Morsi on Sunday dismissed the country’s two top generals and tore up an army decree that had curbed his powers.
It was a dramatic move, all the more surprising coming from a man who was the Muslim Brotherhood’s last-minute candidate for the presidential election that ended in June, pilloried at the time as a stiff politician seen more as a Brotherhood functionary than a statesman-in-waiting.
Few would label him so now, even if many say he could not have been so audacious without the backing of the Brotherhood, whose top officials long talked of rolling back the military’s influence but had spoken of it taking years.
His bold tactics still carry risks, even though the army has so far shown no signs of challenging the move. There may yet be a backlash from a Mubarak- era establishment, the so- called “deep state”, which will take years to reform. In addition, with power concentrated in his hands, Morsi has few others to blame for any failings as he works on the mammoth task of fixing a crippled economy.
Yet his move to reshape the military leadership when it was on the defensive after the Sinai debacle and secure himself more powers to deliver on policy is an early victory, even if more political skirmishes with the army and others may erupt.
“President Morsi has been following closely the border attacks and after that he felt that a change was needed in the security leadership,” a presidential source told Reuters.
Morsi ordered out field marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years before he took charge of Egypt when the former president fell. He also dismissed chief of staff Sami Enan, 64. Both were replaced by generals in their 50s from the supreme council of the armed forces that Tantawi had led.
“His decisions were guided by what he saw would serve Egypt best and the sentiments he felt from the troops he visited in Sinai,” said the presidential source. Many Egyptians were angered that militants could have been allowed to gain enough of a foothold in Sinai to stage such a brazen assault that killed the 16 guards on Aug 5, before stealing vehicles and trying to storm the Israeli border.
Even some soldiers quietly grumbled. “In any decent state, the minister of defence would have been sacked over the border killings,” said one army major, speaking when the national intelligence chief was replaced last week but before Tantawi was eased out. The backdrop of public anger and signs of discontent in the ranks offered an ideal chance to change the ageing top brass.
Several junior officers interviewed by Reuters over the past year said they were tired of a few top officers becoming rich while the vast majority struggle. “Events in Sinai accelerated Morsi’s moves,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “This is what the Brotherhood wanted to do eventually. They ended up doing it a lot earlier than everyone expected.”
Hamid said Morsi may have also been encouraged after winning some public praise for the sacking a few days earlier of the intelligence chief and north Sinai governor. Islamists and, more unusually, some liberals turned up at the presidential palace after that decision with banners saying “Yes to Morsi”.
But Hamid said it was “premature” for the Brotherhood to rest on its laurels or to count out the military. “This was a risky move. It is not all rosy for Morsi. He has to deliver now. There are certain elements in the deep state that are not happy with a strong, assertive presidency.”
For now, the army appears to have accepted the changes. A general and the presidential source insisted Morsi consulted with Tantawi and the military council beforehand, though they did not indicate whether or not the top brass were happy about the decision.
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