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Middle East

Morsi grabs power from the military

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has dismissed two of the country's military leaders. But this does not mean confrontation with the army is inevitable.

In a move that few expected, new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi fired Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Annan, the two highest-ranking Egyptian military officers. A reason for the dismissals was the suspected Islamist terror attack in northern Sinai that left 16 border guards dead. In his first response to the attack, which outraged Egypt, Morsi had already deposed the intelligence chief and the governor of North Sinai. Now he has dared to take on the top military brass.

The military versus the Muslim Brotherhood

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows (L-R) Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Ganzoury, head of the military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, President Mohamed Morsi, and armed forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan during a graduation ceremony from the Air Force Academy +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

The president and his generals: Morsi, Mohammed and Annan


Morsi could well have coordinated the move with other military groups, Günter Meyer, director of the Center for the Study of the Arab World at the University of Mainz, said. "The military, and especially Defense Minister and Supreme Commander of the Egyptian military Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, is regarded as friendly to Israel and the US. And that is extremely unpopular in Egypt at present."

This meant Morsi could be sure that the dismissal of the two would even find support in military circles.

"In Egypt, surprisingly, it was said that even the Supreme Military Council had approved the move," Meyer added.

Cairo University political scientist Hassan Nafaa also does not interpret the removal of the two generals as a sign of struggle between different state institutions. Rather, he sees it as suggesting a power struggle between the Military Council and the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party. As before, the two forces are in political competition with each other, he said. Egypt is still in a transitional phase, and many Egyptians are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood could seize power.

"The question now is whether Mohammed Morsi will use his power and authority for the benefit of Egypt or for the Muslim Brotherhood," Nafaa noted.

The army loses power

Egyptian Army honor guards carry the coffins of 16 soldiers killed in an attack over the weekend (Photo:Thomas Hartwell/AP/dapd)

A burial ceremony for the 16 soldiers murdered in Sinai


In any event, Meyer said, recent developments do not seem to have gone in favor of the military. That's because Morsi has also withdrawn the special powers the Supreme Military Council secured for itself in late June in a supplement to the constitution. That addition meant that even the highest-ranking military officer was no longer the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces.

"Recent events thus represent not only the disempowerment of the military - inasmuch as the most influential opponents of the president have been deposed - but also a strengthening of Morsi's own position, as he has restored the former powers of the president by decree," he said. "Whether this is accepted by the judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court remains to be seen."

Nafaa agrees that the political domination of the military has come to an end. For the first time, power is now in the hands of a democratically elected president, he said. While it can not be ruled out that Morsi's opponents may be tempted to appeal to the Supreme Constitutional Court in the hope that it will find the president's decisions unconstitutional. This seems possible, as the Supreme Military Council repeatedly tried to secure political power through the Supreme Constitutional Court. But Nafaa doubts that it will come to this.

"By now, the military has realized that the power lies with the elected president. And I assume that they will not take up this issue again," he said.

Fears of a new dictatorship

The military has lost support from much of the population due to its ineptitude, Meyer said. Morsi recognized this - as well as the chance for securing power it offers him. Now he is trying to present himself as a strong man, a role that few would initially have expected.

"Morsi was considered stiff and not very assertive," Meyer said. "He has strongly refuted this through his recent actions. Morsi has emphatically consolidated his position."

It is all the more important now for Morsi to use his power appropriately. A problem is that he holds both legislative and executive power, prompting concern that he could become a dictator.

At the Israeli-Egyptian border: Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and General Russo REUTERS/Amir Cohen

From left: Defense Minister Barak, General Russo and Prime Minister Netanyahu


Israeli concerns

Recent developments have triggered anxiety in Israel. Defense Minister Tantawi and Chief of Staff Annan were viewed as military officers who were not hostile to Israel. In this context, there are great concerns about the change at the top, Meyer said. Initially, there was a sense of relief that their successors came from the ranks of the Military Council. Furthermore, Israel counts on the pragmatism of the generals. They know how unpopular Israel is with the Egyptian population, Meyer explained, but added, "They also know that they endanger the 1.3 billion dollars in military aid from the United States if they renounce the peace treaty with Israel."

The upheaval in Egypt has reached a new level. Street fighting has been replaced with another, more discreet battle. Struggles no longer mean open violence, but the weapons of words and the law. The battle has cooled, but it is far from predictable.

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