Egyp­tian pres­i­dent still on shaky ground

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Daniel Pipes and Cyn­thia Fara­hat

Ear­lier this year, most an­a­lysts in Egypt as­sessed Field Mar­shal Hus­sein Tantawi to be the key fig­ure in that coun­try’s pol­i­tics and Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi to be a light­weight. Mr. Morsi fired Field Mar­shal Tantawi on Aug. 12. This mat­ters be­cause Field Mar­shal Tantawi would have kept the coun­try out of Is­lamist hands, while Mr. Morsi is speed­ily mov­ing the coun­try in the di­rec­tion of ap­ply­ing Is­lamic law. If Mr. Morsi suc­ceeds at this, the re­sult will have ma­jor neg­a­tive im­pli­ca­tions for Amer­ica’s stand­ing in the re­gion. How did this hap­pen? Field Mar­shal Tantawi, then the ef­fec­tive ruler of Egypt, had hand­picked Mr. Morsi for pres­i­dent, see­ing him as the safest op­tion, some­one who could be ma­nip­u­lated or (if nec­es­sary) re­placed. To­ward this end, Field Mar­shal Tantawi in­structed the Supreme Con­sti­tu­tional Court (SCC) to ap­prove Mr. Morsi as a can­di­date de­spite his ar­rest on Jan. 27, 2011, for “trea­son and es­pi­onage,” de­spite his time in prison, and de­spite the SCC hav­ing ex­cluded other im­pris­oned Mus­lim Brother­hood can­di­dates, es­pe­cially the rich, charis­matic and visionary Khairat El-Shater. Field Mar­shal Tantawi wanted the ob­scure, in­el­e­gant and epilep­tic Mr. Morsi to run for pres­i­dent be­cause Mr. Shater was too dan­ger­ous and an­other Mus­lim Brother­hood can­di­date, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fet­touh, was too pop­u­lar.

Some­time af­ter Mr. Morsi be­came pres­i­dent on June 30, Field Mar­shal Tantawi openly sig­naled his in­tent to over­throw him via a mass demon­stra­tion to take place on Aug. 24. His mouth­piece, Taw­fik Okasha, openly en­cour­aged a mil­i­tary coup against Mr. Morsi. But Mr. Morsi acted first and took sev­eral steps on Aug. 12: He an­nulled the con­sti­tu­tional dec­la­ra­tion lim­it­ing his power, dis­missed Field Mar­shal Tantawi and re­placed him with Abdel Fat­tah al-Sissi, head of mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence.

Mr. Morsi, in brief, pre-empted the im­pend­ing mil­i­tary coup d’etat against him. Tarek al-Zo­mor, a lead­ing ji­hadi and Morsi sup­porter, ad­mit­ted that “choos­ing Sissi to re­place Tantawi was to stop a coup,” pub­licly ac­knowl­edg­ing Mr. Morsi’s ur­gent need to act be­fore Aug. 24. Hamdi Kandil, one of Egypt’s most prom­i­nent jour­nal­ists, rightly char­ac­ter­ized Mr. Morsi’s act as “a civil­ian coup.”

How did Mr. Morsi pull it off? How did the lamb slaugh­ter the butcher? Why did so many an­a­lysts not see this com­ing?

They missed one hid­den fac­tor: Mus­lim Brother­hoodor­i­ented mil­i­tary of­fi­cers turn out to have been far more nu­mer­ous and pow­er­ful than pre­vi­ously re­al­ized. They knew about the Aug. 24 plot and helped Mr. Morsi beat it. If it was long ap­par­ent that some of­fi­cers had a sym­pa­thetic out­look to­ward the Brother­hood, the ex­tent of their net­work has only just come out in the three months since the coup.

For ex­am­ple, we now know that Maj. Gen. Ab­bas Mekheimar, the army of­fi­cer as­signed to over­see the purge of of­fi­cers with Mus­lim Brother­hood or other Is­lamist af­fil­i­a­tions, him­self is aligned with the Mus­lim Brother­hood or per­haps a mem­ber of it. As for Mr. Sissi, while the Mus­lim Brother­hood de­nies his di­rect mem­ber­ship, one of its lead­ers says he be­longs to its in­for­mal “fam­ily” — which makes sense, see­ing that high-rank­ing pub­lic fig­ures best ad­vance its agenda when not for­mal mem­bers. His po­si­tion as head of mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence gave him ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about Field Mar­shal Tantawi’s planned Aug. 24 coup. His­to­rian Ali Al-Ash­mawi found that Mr. Sissi tracked mil­i­tary of­fi­cials loyal to Field Mar­shal Tantawi and had them dis­charged.

In ret­ro­spect, this net­work should not be a great sur­prise, for it has a prece­dent: The Mus­lim Brother­hood in­fil­trated the mil­i­tary in the 1940s, stand­ing be­hind the Free Of­fi­cers move­ment that over­threw King Farouq in 1952. Af­ter hav­ing been shut out in the pe­riod 1954 through 1974, the Mus­lim Brother­hood then re­built its net­work of of­fi­cers in ways in­vis­i­ble and un­known to out­side ob­servers, in­clud­ing our­selves. One top Mus­lim Brother­hood fig­ure, Thar­wat al-Kharabawi, now ac­knowl­edges that some of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mem­bers “be­came high-rank­ing lead­ers in the mil­i­tary.”

Where does this leave mat­ters? Field Mar­shal Tantawi and com­pany are safely pen­sioned off, and (un­like Hosni Mubarak) are not go­ing to jail. Mr. Sissi’s mil­i­tary has re­treated to roughly the same po­si­tion that Field Mar­shal Tantawi’s mil­i­tary oc­cu­pied be­fore Mr. Mubarak’s over­throw in Fe­bru­ary 2011 — which is to say it is al­lied with the pres­i­dent and fol­low­ing his lead­er­ship with­out be­ing fully sub­or­di­nate to him. It re­tains con­trol over its own bud­get, its pro­mo­tions and dis­missals, and its eco­nomic em­pire. But the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship lost the di­rect po­lit­i­cal power that it en­joyed in 2011-12.

Mr. Morsi’s fu­ture is far from as­sured. Not only does he face com­pet­ing fac­tions of Is­lamists, but Egypt faces a ter­ri­ble eco­nomic cri­sis. Mr. Morsi’s power to­day un­ques­tion­ably brings ma­jor short-term ben­e­fits for him and the Mus­lim Brother­hood, but in the long term, it likely will dis­credit the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s rule.

In short, fol­low­ing 30 years of sta­sis un­der Mr. Mubarak, Egypt’s po­lit­i­cal drama has just be­gun. Daniel Pipes ( is pres­i­dent of the Mid­dle East Forum, where Cyn­thia Fara­hat is an as­so­ciate fel­low.

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