Egypt’s Islamist President, Mohammed Morsi, made a seemingly dramatic decision this week: to sack, with immediate effect, the country’s powerful army chief, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, along with his second-in-command. Both were instrumental, in the form of their self-appointed role as leaders of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, in overseeing the complex, violent transition to democracy following last year’s popular uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr Morsi’s move was widely interpreted as representing the culmination of a struggle for power between the entrenched military establishment, which had effectively ruled the country from behind the scenes since 1952, and the formerly banned but now resurgent Muslim Brotherhood. The latter had finally outwitted the former, and gained the power to determine the country’s future political direction.
A simultaneous announcement by Mr Morsi annulling the generals’ earlier constitutional amendment giving the army control over legislative powers gave superficial credence to this interpretation. The military establishment was finally banished from the political sphere, with potentially alarming consequences for Israel. For, while the generals have safeguarded for more than three decades the peace treaty with the Jewish state, the Brotherhood, we are supposed to believe, harbours the goal of tearing it up.
Another view is that this week’s events were orchestrated and, in fact barely alter Egypt’s foreign policy.
After all, Tantawi and his deputy were immediately appointed as presidential advisers and awarded Egypt’s highest state honour: the Nile Medal. What matters most in Egypt is karama, or dignity; both generals were left with theirs intact. They had made it clear from the outset that they had no wish to take on the challenges posed by the day-to-day running of the country’s internal affairs. And they made no attempt to use the country’s courts, still dominated by Mubarak-era judges, to challenge their sackings.
Small wonder Washington merely said it was “unsurprised” by Mr Morsi’s decisions. In fact, Egypt’s new military leader, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, has long-standing ties to both American and Israeli intelligence officials.
Moreover, Mr Morsi had responded with outright anger at the brazen attack on an army checkpoint a week earlier by jihadists in the country’s Sinai region, and dismissed the country’s intelligence chief and the region’s governor. He also endorsed a subsequent military attack on the jihadists by the Egyptian army — which, under the terms of the peace treaty, required Israel’s approval.
What matters is whether Mr Morsi is now poised to go one step further, and contain the military’s control of foreign policy and dominance over the Egyptian economy. That is what really concerns the Egyptian generals’ partners in Washington and Tel Aviv. As of now, there is no indication that Mr Morsi intends to make any such move.
Indeed, the Brotherhood needs the Army to control the jihadists, who consider the Brotherhood to be stooges of the West. And, as the Sinai threat increases, so will the threat posed nationwide to the Muslim Brotherhood by more radical Islamist groups.
And while the million-strong army remains hugely popular among the masses, and the Brotherhood has only minority support, for Mr Morsi to create a real showdown with the army would make him not only Egypt’s first ever elected president but one intent on political suicide.
John R Bradley’s books include ‘Inside Egypt’and ‘After the Arab Spring’