ON Sunday evening Egypt’s president, Muhammad Morsi, made a surprising move. In a brief televised announcement by his spokesman, Morsi purged the upper ranks of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — the collection of senior generals that, having controlled the country for decades, had imposed itself as a de facto fourth branch of government working to limit the president’s power.
Gone is the long-serving Defence minister, Field-Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, and his deputy and heir apparent, General Sami Enan, as well as the heads of all the major military service branches. Many of them received significant golden-parachute reassignments. Tantawi and Enan were given nice shiny medals and appointed “presidential advisers”. But that does little to soften the blow.
When Morsi sacked his intelligence chief and several other high-level security officials on August 8, after militants killed 16 Egyptian troops in the Sinai desert, it was greeted as an assertive step by a leader seeking to make his mark on the office. It turns out that it was just the warm-up act.
The president and his Muslim Brotherhood can claim this as a victory in the persistent power struggle with SCAF.
Much of the jockeying between the two sides has centred on issues of civilian oversight over the military and how much power the Islamist president could wield. Morsi’s sacking of General Tantawi rather settles the question of who is in charge.
But the move does not signal an end to the long-term Brotherhood-SCAF dynamic, nor to Egypt’s extended post-revolutionary season of political uncertainty. The country still lacks a constitution and a parliament, after the Supreme Court dissolved the People’s Assembly, deeming it unconstitutional.
Rather than an absolute triumph the latest developments represent a reshaping of the existing deal — with the military retreating a bit from its own recent power grabs. Morsi will still have to tread carefully around the military and its massive economic empire. But he will now be dealing with a new, potentially more compliant, generation of officers, like Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the new Defence minister .
“There are some members of the SCAF who helped Morsi do this, and they will now be beholden to him and owe their positions to his administration,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre. “What we’re going to see is a temporary accommodation in the short-term. But the institutional struggle between the Brotherhood and the military will continue.”
On the sun-baked streets of Cairo, Egypt’s capital, the reaction has been muted, but that is unlikely to last. Several thousand Brotherhood supporters flooded into Tahrir Square for a few hours late on Sunday night to hail Morsi’s move.
Yet by Monday morning the square had emptied. The military is keeping quiet for now; but its civilian backers, like former parliamentarian and newspaper editor Mustafa Bakri, are already denouncing a naked Brotherhood power grab.
Those complaints will gain some traction among the 49% of voters who opposed Morsi — many of whom saw the military as a necessary bulwark against the bearded hordes