Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has made drastic changes to the Egyptian military. (File photo)
In his last interview with a journalist friend a few months before his sudden and mysterious death, the former Egyptian spy chief, Omar Suleiman, said if the Muslim Brotherhood snatched power, the army would stage a coup. Has his prophecy been reversed or is that risk still serious?
Army commanders at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), who actually ran the country during the transition period, were all close to the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who is now in jail. Even pressure from these commanders may have been influential in commuting Mubarak’s sentence.
Taking advantage of conditions created following a recent attack on two Egyptian border posts in Sinai Desert, which claimed the lives of 16 Egyptian soldiers, President Mohamed Morsi has introduced changes in the military command. Demonstrations at Cairo’s iconic Liberation (al-Tahrir) Square in support of his decision, show how these changes have been important to people and various political groups that were involved in the country’s January 25 revolution.
The changes led to the retirement of the defense minister, Hussein Tantawi, and military chief of staff, Sami Anan, thus expelling them from the country’s political scene in a face-saving manner. Both of them had been introduced two weeks ago as members of the new Egyptian cabinet, which is headed by Prime Minister Hesham Qandil. Analysts say Morsi was looking for an opportunity to get rid of the SCAF and Field Marshal Tantawi, but if so, why he had already introduced the two military officials as members of the new cabinet?
This is why many analysts have described Morsi’s decision as a “white coup d’état” or “soft coup” against the army. Some argue that the army was to stage an imminent coup and Morsi has preempted them. Others believe that the inefficiency of army commanders in dealing with terrorists in Sinai Desert due to their commitment to Camp David Accord has enraged the president. There are even journalists in Cairo who believe the decision has been a result of consultation and coordination with the United States!
Morsi’s decisions were not limited to dismissal of the defense minister and a number of other army commanders; he also took the political and legislative powers back from the SCAF, returning the council to its rightful position. Before the presidential polls, the SCAF had considered vast powers for itself and did not even let the president change the members of the council or decide about the budget. “Supplement to Constitution” was the name they had chosen for those powers and most revolutionary groups were opposed to them. Before the election of Morsi, the SCAF was the absolute ruler of the country and shared the power with him before the recent changes.
Since the Supreme Court, backed by the SCAF, has already dissolved the parliament, Morsi is now heading both the Executive and the Legislature. This situation has caused certain concerns in the country, though Morsi does not seem to be willing for this situation to continue for long and will arrange for parliamentary polls in the first possible opportunity.
The third remarkable measure taken by Morsi was the appointment of a vice president. Mubarak had not chosen a vice president in the last two decades of his rule. Now the first civilian vice president has been chosen for the first civilian president which is a turning point in Egypt’s contemporary history and will drive politics further away from the military.
Morsi is sure to have consulted his confidantes before making these decisions. Under current conditions, keeping those consultations confidential with Tantawi being unaware until the eleventh hour, is considered a major point for the new president who had already dismissed the head of the intelligence agency and the police chief as well. Now, most military commanders who were appointed by Mubarak are gone and Morsi’s hard task is how to maintain this situation.
News coming from Israel show that its leaders were not forewarned of the changes in the Egyptian military and were taken by surprise. Egypt and Israel have signed a peace accord. Who, in the new Egyptian government, will contact Israel? Omar Suleiman was in charge of relations with Israel. As long as the SCAF was involved in political affairs, it could have taken charge of relations with Israel, allowing Morsi to attend to other affairs. Now that prominent members of the military council are expelled, Israel will have a serious problem for approaching new Egyptian leaders.
The killing of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai was not the main cause of all these changes; however, it undoubtedly worked as a catalyst. The Egyptian army continues its operations in Sinai Desert, though Cairo has not officially accused any group of complicity in the attack.
However, the intelligence agency of an European state has noted in a recent report that the massacre of Sinai has been done at the behest of Saudi Arabia whose king recently appointed the former ambassador to the US, Sultan bin Bandar, as head of the intelligence.
There is no doubt that the killers of Egyptian soldiers were radical Wahhabis influenced by Saudi Arabia’s extremist religious ideas. A recent measure by Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani who granted USD 2 billion to the Egyptian central bank in order to prevent devaluation of the Egyptian pound is a sign of covert and overt rivalry between Riyadh and Doha.