Morsi Could Discredit Muslim Brotherhood Rule
by Daniel Pipes and Cynthia Farahat
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Earlier this year, most analysts in Egypt assessed Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi as the key figure in that country's politics and President Mohamed Morsi as a lightweight, so it came as a surprise when Morsi fired Tantawi on Aug. 12, 2012.
This matters because Tantawi would have kept the country out of Islamist hands while Morsi is speedily moving the country in the direction of applying Islamic law. If Morsi succeeds at this, the result will have major negative implications for America's standing in the region.
Tantawi, then the effective ruler of Egypt, had handpicked Morsi to become president, seeing him as the safest option, someone who could be manipulated or (if necessary) replaced. Toward this end, Tantawi instructed the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) to approve Morsi as a candidate, despite his arrest on Jan. 27, 2011, for "treason and espionage," his time in prison, and despite the SCC having excluded other Muslim Brotherhood candidates, especially the rich, charismatic, and visionary Khairat El-Shater, on the basis of their own imprisonment. Tantawi wanted the obscure, inelegant, and epileptic Morsi to run for president because Shater was too dangerous and another Brotherhood candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fettouh, too popular.
Sometime after Morsi became president on June 30, 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 Morsi. But Morsi acted first and took several steps on Aug. 12: he annulled the constitutional declaration limiting his power, dismissed Tantawi, and replaced him with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of military intelligence.
Morsi, in brief, pre-empted the impending military coup d'état against him. Tarek al-Zomor, a leading jihadi and Morsi supporter, acknowledged that "choosing Sisi to replace Tantawi was to stop a coup," publicly acknowledging Morsi's urgent need to act before Aug. 24. Hamdi Kandil, one of Egypt's most prominent journalists, rightly characterized Morsi's act as "a civilian coup."
They missed one hidden factor: Brotherhood-oriented military officers turn out to have been far more numerous and powerful than previously realized: they both knew about the Aug. 24 plot plan and helped Morsi to beat it. If it was long apparent that some officers had an outlook sympathetic to 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 Major General Abbas Mekheimar, the army officer assigned to oversee the purge of officers with Brotherhood or other Islamist affiliations, himself is aligned with the Brotherhood or perhaps a member of it. As for Sisi, while the 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 Tantawi's Aug. 24 planned coup and historian Ali Al-Ashmawi found that Sisi tracked military officials loyal to Tantawi and had them discharged.
Where does this leave matters? Tantawi and company are safely pensioned off, and (unlike Hosni Mubarak) are not going to jail. Sisi's military has retreated to roughly the same position that Tantawi's military occupied before Mubarak's overthrow in Feb. 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 for 1½ years in 2011-12.
Morsi's future is far from assured. Not only does he face competing factions of Islamists but Egypt faces a terrible economic crisis. Morsi's power today unquestionably brings major short-term benefits for himself and the Brotherhood; but in the long term it will likely discredit Brotherhood rule.
In short, following thirty years of stasis under Mubarak, Egypt's political drama has just begun.
Nov. 14, 2012 addendum: We ignored two other factors that did not fit above but contributed to Morsi's rise: (1) Tantawi sported a chest full of medals and multiple grandiose titles, but he was weak both nationally (where he represented the discredited old regime) and internationally (where he was seen as an obstacle to democracy). (2) However incompetent Morsi might be, smarter Brotherhood elements stood behind him (such as Khairat El-Shater, whose second name actually means "the clever one") and helped him plan his pre-emptive coup.
Nov. 20, 2012 update: That Shater is a power behind the scenes is confirmed in the Iraqi publication az-Zaman (made available by Al-Monitor), that Morsi is thinking to make him prime minister of Egypt:
July 6, 2013 update: I learn today that Morsi and Sisi had ties before Morsi made Sisi the defense minister in August 2012. From a New York Times article, "Morsi Spurned Deals, Seeing Military as Tamed," explaining how Morsi got things so wrong in his relationship with Sisi:
That bond began soon to fall apart, however:
That process of ousting began on June 21,
At that point, Morsi entered his own zone of reality.
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