President Morsi's dismissal of Field Marshall Tantawi may appear like a schoolboy stunt; an opportune moment to capitalize on the failure of the Egyptian military. Yet to take on such a powerful institution head on suggests method and reveals a certain confidence in their power base.
For many Egyptians the military is still a source of pride. The October war in 1973, for instance, is a national holiday and comes with a victory museum to boot. However, the military's important role has allowed it to grow unchecked. Its plush officer's apartments in Alexandria and Nasser city, its hospitals, bakeries and factories are testimony to its success. According to Sherin Tadros' Al Jazeera article, "Egypt Military's Economic Empire," over 35 factories and companies making everything from pasta to TVs are owned by the military.
Considering the institution's power and standing, it would have made sense for Morsi to come to a working agreement. The Brotherhood, after all, has a track record of working under difficult political circumstances. However, Morsi's actions only make sense when you realize that it, too, possesses an infrastructure integral to Egypt. You don't need statistics to see why. Visit the back of Zein al-Abidin mosque in Cairo: there are people who live amongst the graves, unable to cover their nakedness. Visit the Anfushi in Alexandria and you see men living off rotting vegetables picked right out of the rubbish containers. They know that the sight is revolting, but they've gone beyond caring. Poverty is flagrant in Egypt and this is what the Brotherhood's NGOs deal with.
In the sprawling necropolis of Cairo, Brotherhood volunteers shelter and feed hundreds of poor. According to Rabha Allam, author of "Engaging with traditional and modern Islamic NGOs in Egypt" (2012) NGOs affiliated with the Brotherhood have access to remote rural communities where the Egyptian state has none. The Islamic Medical association is one example: with over 24 hospitals all over Egypt, it provides affordable emergency surgery, dentistry, labs, psychiatric care, and pharmaceutical services. During the revolution the Brotherhood sent medical units to care for injured protesters. The Brotherhood's perceived support for the poor made it so strong that during the farcical elections in 2005, Mubarak had to use troops to prevent rural voters electing Brotherhood candidates.
The origins of their strength began with President Sadat in the '70s. In his attempt to eliminate his Nasserist and socialist opponents he came to an accord with the Brotherhood. Brotherhood members returned from the Gulf with newfound wealth due to the construction boom. They began to organize, preach and rebuild their movement. By the '80s they dominated the student, professor, lawyer, and medical syndicates in Egypt. By the mid-'90s 35 percent of charitable NGOs were affiliated with the Brotherhood. By the time an earthquake struck Cairo in 1992 they had effectively created a dual welfare system. Whilst the government took two days to respond to the crisis, they were on the streets within hours. The integral nature of these structures made it difficult to crack down on the party. Although Mubarak tried to do so after an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa, the prospect of dismantling this network on which so many poor depended was too risky.
Moreover, apart from the social infrastructure, the Brotherhood's history is enmeshed within modern Egypt. The party was instrumental in ending the incompetent monarchy. They took an active role in agitating against the British military presence in Egypt and Palestine. The party, like its secular counterparts, had also produced its fair share of intellectuals and martyrs such as Hassan al-Banna, Syed Qutb and Zaynab al-Ghazali.
Should Field Marshall Tantawi take on Morsi he needs to consider the wrath of the hungry masses that depend on the unofficial welfare network created by the Brotherhood. It is this welfare system that allows Morsi to take on the most powerful man in Egypt with such boldness.