Obstacles in the way of the Islamist takeover of Egypt are dwindling.
In less than a week, the Muslim Brotherhood has made great strides towards consolidating its power in Egypt. Last Wednesday, newly elected president Mohammed Morsi fired his intelligence chief and other top security officials, using the killing of 16 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula as his rationale. On Sunday Morsi took his purge one step further, dismissing the entire military leadership in a move that shocked the nation. Whether the military ultimately accepts that decision remains to be seen. The dramatic political implications from the move, however, are not in question.
Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, Military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, along with three generals, Air Force Chief Rezza Abd al-Megid, Navy Commander Mahab Muhamed Mamish and Air Defense Chief Abd Al-Aziz Muhamed Seif were all sacked by Morsi. Tantawi and Anan will be retained as advisors, said Yasser Ali, Mr. Morsi's spokesman. The Wall Street Journal speculated that the arrangement suggests both men were consulted in advance and willingly ceded power. Morsi awarded both men "Order of the Nile" medals, Egypt's highest state honor. Morsi also appointed Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president. Mekki is a former judge who earned notoriety for challenging the power of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration issued by the military junta that severely limited his presidential authority, replacing it with one that gives him sweeping executive and legislative powers. The Journal contends that this new arrangement gives him more power than Hosni Mubarak enjoyed, while the New York Times speculates that such power could give Morsi a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt's as yet unfinished new constitution.
If this move remains unchallenged, Morsi becomes the supreme commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces, president of the National Defense Council, and Egypt's president.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was slow to officially weigh in on the apparent coup, but Egypt's official news agency quoted an unnamed military official late Sunday as saying there has been no "negative reaction" from within the military. Tantawi and Anan's successors, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, an ex-head of military intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Sidki Sayed Ahmed, respectively, were sworn in during a brief and somber ceremony broadcast live on state TV Sunday. Little is known about either man, but Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi angered activists last year when he reportedly admitted to Amnesty International that Egypt's military was using "virginity tests" to supposedly protect military personnel from rape accusations.
Sunday was also the first time the Egyptian public was made aware of what was going on. In his speech at the event, Morsi contended the move was not made to "embarrass" the military or its leadership, but to act in the "best interests of the nation." "Today, this nation returns--this people return--with its blessed revolution," he said. "Support me strongly, so we can move to a better future."
Egypt expert Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at New York's Century Foundation described the event as a "civilian-led putsch. It's extralegal," he told the Journal. "It requires for the Supreme Constitutional Court to cease to be a binding force. I don't think there's any other way around it."
Perhaps they already are. Morsi's new declaration of powers effectively guts the ruling made by that body declaring that the military's constitutional declaration limiting the powers of the presidency was legal. That ruling stemmed from the fact that some of the judges on the court share the military's distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had remained suppressed for decades under Mubarak.
Senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party were apparently preparing for a backlash. They used Twitter and Facebook to rally public support for the move, and by Sunday night, hundreds of supporters had gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square with banners to declare their allegiance to the president.
As the appointments were being made, the Egyptians moved American-made M-60 tanks up to the Israeli border, which is an ostensible violation of the 1979 treaty between the two nations. It is not clear whether Israel was caught off guard by the move, or gave permission for it to occur. Yet Debka is reporting that as recently as last week, Morsi said that treaty clauses "not deemed beneficial to Egyptian interests" would have to be eliminated. Debka is also speculating that the terrorist attacks in the Sinai last week were being exploited by the Brotherhood to remove military men such as Tantawi and Anan -- because they were seen as the last major impediments to the Muslim Brotherhood's complete takeover of Egypt.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, echoed that assessment. “Sinai was critical. If it didn’t happen, Morsi wouldn’t have made these changes so soon,” he said. “Sinai presented a window of opportunity for Morsi. He already shuffled the decks with the mukhabarat head and governor of Sinai, and the failure in Sinai highlighted a number of internal problems, especially with regard to SCAF’s competence.”
Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at National Defense University notes the risk involved. “This is a palace coup and a very risky one,” he said. “Firing most of the SCAF is a bold move that could backfire at Morsi. He has been losing credibility with the Egyptian public since his election. The Sinai attack was seen by many in Egypt as a sign of Morsi's weakness, not the military and intelligence people. Now he is trying to turn the tables on them.”
Unsurprisingly the White House and State Department were also caught off guard, noting that they too had not been notified in advance. At first they had no comment, but the Washington Post's David Ignatius writes that U.S. officials "appear to have confidence in the new defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who had extensive contact with the United States in his previous post as head of military intelligence." Yet Ignatius is forced to admit the obvious, noting that the Muslim Brotherhood "has now tightened its grip on Egypt, controlling the military as well as the presidency and the parliament."
Add the Egyptian media to the list as well. On Saturday, Al-Dustour, a privately owned newspaper, had its editions confiscated after an Egyptian court ruled that it had insulted Morsi and instigated sectarian discord, according to Egypt's official news agency. The discord? They were warning Egyptians that the Brotherhood was going to seize power, and needed to be stopped by a coalition of liberals and the military. And no doubt by sheer coincidence, Morsi has just named the editors of the top Egyptian newspaper, as well as other state-owned media outlets.
All this leads inexorably to one one conclusion: a successful Muslim Brotherhood power-grab has taken place in Egypt. It is one that has caught the Obama administration completely off guard, as have so many other "unexpected" developments of the so-called Arab Spring. Once has to wonder if such an event could have happened so rapidly if America had an administration grounded in reality, rather than one with an affinity for Islamists that defies logic. Barring a complete turnaround by the military, Morsi can do anything he wants. No doubt president Obama will try to put a happy face on it when Morsi visits the White House next month. Ironically, one is left to wonder whether that invitation, essentially legitimizing Morsi over Israeli objections, was part of the impetus that prompted his seizure of power.
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