A Brotherhood coup in Egypt

By Victor Kotsev 

Egypt’s ostensibly inexperienced president Mohammed Morsi accomplished nothing short of a coup d’etat on Sunday when he replaced the men who were widely seen as Egypt’s rulers – Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Lieutenant general Sami Anan, among others – and shredded the latest constitutional amendment issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). 
The SCAF, its rule undercut by the collapse of authority in the Sinai peninsula and by last week’s cross-border terror attack (which cost the lives of 16 soldiers and caught the Egyptians unprepared despite a “detailed intelligence warning”), conceded. However, it is uncertain what its true motives and intentions are, as is the precise magnitude, in practical terms, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spectacular victory. Many eyes, both in the region and farther away, are fixed on Egypt as the intrigue unfolds. 
It remains unclear what exactly transpired in the days and hours prior to Sunday afternoon’s surprise announcement. The fact that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Tantawi’s replacement as defense minister and army chief, is nearly two decades younger than him has raised the possibility of an internal army coup. The sharp generational divide in the army’s higher echelon and the unwillingness of the older generals to share some of their power with younger colleagues has been a liability for the SCAF since the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, himself an octogenarian air force general. 
As Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Doha Center wrote on his Twitter account, “What we saw today in Egypt increasingly seems like a mix of a civilian counter-coup and a coordinated coup within the military itself.” 
Despite rumors of an impending army coup against Morsi, which may have something to do with his actions, for at least a couple of weeks now there were signs that the power of Tantawi and the SCAF was waning. For example, the military remained strangely silent during a number of debates surrounding the drafting of the new Egyptian constitution, despite having given itself authority over the constituent assembly with the amendment which Morsi just abrogated. 
Also, the previously assertive Tantawi demonstrated some servility in the wake of the Sinai attack, when he fired his intelligence chief and several other generals at the request of Morsi. Regardless of whether his failure to respond more forcefully to the president’s early overtures sealed his fate, as some analysts claim, it was clear that something was amiss. 
On the ground, something is clearly wrong with the military campaign against Sinai terrorists. The government claims to have captured “the Bin Laden of Sinai” and to have killed at least 20 militants in air strikes last week. Recent reports, however, question the veracity of all of these claims. [1] Meanwhile, in response to several deaths which occurred subsequently in the course of the military campaign, Sinai militants assassinated a tribal sheikh and his son. [2] By most accounts, the loss of government control in Sinai has progressed so far that the army will have an extremely hard time reasserting its authority. 
Moreover, the economy of Egypt is also faltering, with traditional sources of income such as tourism slashed by the unrest and almost daily riots over the shortage of essential products. Clearly, Morsi and the Muslim Brother face an extremely daunting task of managing the country. 
These issues, alongside the unpopularity of the military’s older leadership, may have something to do with the SCAF’s unusual acquiescence to Morsi’s schemes. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood could make an excellent scapegoat in the event of an economic collapse and a breakdown of social order in Egypt. 
As the influential US-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor wrote recently, “While Morsi may have achieved a symbolic victory in removing long-serving members of the former Mubarak regime from their military posts, the military had its own reasons for going along with the moves – reasons that are intended to increase, not reduce, the military’s influence over the civilian government.” 
To be sure, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood won a major victory. Ironically, as many have pointed out, Morsi’s power now is akin to or, in theory, even greater than that of Mubarak at his height. The prominent Egyptian secular leader Mohammed ElBaradei wrote in a tweet on Monday, “With military stripped of legislative authority & in absence of parliament, president holds imperial powers. Transitional mess continues.” 
For now, Morsi’s program appears to measure up in ambition to the challenges ahead of him. Whether his goals are ultimately to safeguard the revolution, as his supporters claim, or to promote democracy, as some Western observers have argued, is much less certain. A harsh campaign against independent media who have been critical of the president and the Brotherhood has been taking place for several weeks now. 
Furthermore, at the same time as he sacked Tantawi and Anan (and reshuffled the top army brass), Morsi appointed also a new vice president, the respected senior judge Mahmoud Mekki. This step was widely interpreted as an attempt to counter the uncooperative judiciary, which has sided with the SCAF on several occasions in the last year and is perceived as a relic from the Mubarak regime. As Marc Lynch wrote in Foreign Policy, “[Mekki’s appointment] could be seen as another … bold move in institutional combat, by potentially co-opting or intimidating the judiciary.” [3] 
It remains to be seen whether the army holds in store surprises of its own. Certainly, while support for the Muslim Brotherhood was clearly visible on the Egyptian streets following Sunday’s events, Morsi’s daring has also won him and the Brotherhood some new resentment. Elements of the secular opposition and of the army, not to mention the Copts and other minorities, may now have acquired a common enemy. 
The maneuver also provoked mixed reactions among the international community. The United States half-heartedly acknowledged that “We had expected expected President Morsi at some point to coordinate changes in the military leadership,” even though American leaders claimed they, too, were caught by surprise. According to the Washington Post analyst David Ignatius, the US endorsed the reshuffle “warily.” [4] 
Given that the US has a strong influence with the Egyptian military and is believed to have played an active role in the ouster of Mubarak, the recent visits in Cairo of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ought to raise some suspicions. While no hard evidence currently links the visits to the coup, Tantawi ostensibly started to lose his voice roughly at the same time. 
Countries in the Persian Gulf have been even more overtly supportive. Qatar, for example, announced that it would lend Egypt US$2 billion just as Morsi announced the reshuffle. 
Israel, on the other hand, is quietly reeling, both because of the departure of several generals with whom it had enjoyed good working relations and because of the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The damage caused to Egypt’s pro-West and secular military may eventually jeopardize the peace treaty with Israel,” the Israeli journalist Alex Fishman wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. 
Over in Gaza, Hamas is in an awkward situation since the Egyptian authorities have reportedly requested several of its operatives to be extradited in connection to last week’s terror attack. While a decisive Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt would likely be immensely beneficial for it in the long term, right now the movement is in a lot of hot water and has been reduced to complaining that it is being treated as unjustly as back when Mubarak was in charge. 
For now, however, while Morsi and the Brotherhood have won a major battle against the political influence of the military, they still have not won the war. In a country which is experiencing as much flux as Egypt, even a daring coup d’etat may not have a very clear impact. 

1. Truth as elusive as militants in Egypt’s Sinai, AFP, August 11, 2012
2. Gunmen kill tribal chief, son in north Sinai, Ma’an, August 13, 2012
3. Lamborghini Morsi, Foreign Policy, August 13, 2012
4. US officials warily endorse new Egyptian defense minister, Washington Post, August 12, 2012 

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

function googleTranslateElementInit() { new google.translate.TranslateElement({ pageLanguage: ‘en’ }, ‘google_translate_element’); }

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.