Egypt's uncertain transition has taken yet another unpredictable turn. On the 12th of August, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has retired Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi from his position as Defence Minister, as well as his deputy, the armed forces Chief of Staff, Sami Anan. At the same time as dismissing Tantawi and Anan, Morsi also cancelled the constitutional declaration that arrogated a number of presidential (and extra-presidential) powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). What happened in the last few days? What is the state of play in Egypt's political transition now? Where does Egypt go from here?
There is a great deal of speculation, as is to be expected, and it is difficult to be certain about much with the lack of transparency that has characterised this transition since the day Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. The only things that are for certain: Tantawi and Anan are out of the political arena, altogether, and Morsi is in a much stronger position than he was previously.
In the realm of the uncertain, theories abound. The first is that Morsi used his strong office of the presidency, and his own personal power within the MB, to put the military in its place (unsurprisingly, Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters are keen to push this theory, but they're not the only ones). Another theory is that the Sinai massacres that took place last week began a swell of antagonism towards the military that would allow the president to take action.
Neither of these theories quite explains the last couple of days. There are generally three nodes of pro-active power in Egypt, and a number of nodes of passive power in Egypt. The former are the most vibrant in changing the course of events -- the latter in slowing them down. The three former are, and have been, clear: the SCAF, the MB, and the street. These three have interacted with each other, pulling back and forth, for months.
In this fight, however, the street has been absent. There were no huge, large scale protests that were calling for action against the SCAF or the Morsi -- so, it's clear that the impetus did not come from there. In terms of the MB: Morsi could not have accomplished what he did in the last couple of days on his own. His power as president was not so entrenched: he did not have the support within the civilian establishment, inside or outside the bureaucracy. The civilian bureaucracy is greatly antipathetic to him, and non-MB political parties are not his allies. In general, beyond the MB, he had no friends. Sinai did not help him in this regard: the massacres only underlined that his power was very much secondary, in many different aspects, to the military establishment's.
This leaves, although only by way of speculation, rather than evidence: the SCAF. Very little is known about what happens internally within the SCAF, and particularly over the last few days. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that Tantawi and Annan decided to go quietly in this manner, simply at the request of Morsi. Press reports indicate that the military were 'consulted' about the move, indicating that other members of the SCAF cooperated with Morsi in this regard. That they have not resisted the move indicates that they may not have simply been consulted: but that perhaps, they may have been pro-actively engaged in promulgating such a move.
Here, then, lie two questions:
1. Was this move a Morsi play for power vis-à-vis Tantawi & Anan, with the rest of SCAF co-operating; or was it a reconstituted SCAF removing Tantawi & Anan, with Morsi co-operating?
2. In either case, why did SCAF members cooperate with the MB to remove not one, but two of their own?
Here, again, speculation is rife. Some speculate that Tantawi and Anan were planning on overthrowing the civilian president later on in August, against the backdrop of a huge protest to be held on the 24th of August, pointing to the call of the now banned Dostor newspaper to carry out a military coup. The theory seems to be that lower levels in the army were uninterested in its institution being embroiled in such an endeavour, and thus sacrificed Tantawi and Anan to avoid it.
Others further argue that Tantawi and Anan had become so unpopular within the SCAF for their handling of the transitional process, others were pleased to put them aside. It wouldn't be the first time that SCAF put one of its own out to dry - it did the same with Hosni Mubarak.
Again: there is little evidence to support either of these theories. But they will no doubt live on, as the lack of transparency engenders such speculation.
Regardless, however: it is clear there was an arrangement between the reconstituted SCAF and the president's office. The dismissal of Tantawi and Anan could not have happened otherwise.
This only leads to further questions:
- Was the arrangement simply around the removal of Tantawi and Anan as a mutually agreeable outcome?
- Was there a long-term 'safe exit' plus agreement (immunity from prosecution, in addition to independence over its economic interests)?
- Was the constitutional assembly's composition and constitution part of the discussion?
All of these are possible, or a combination -- but the reality is that no-one knows. Not yet.
All of this leaves Egypt with a president who now has full presidential powers -- but it does not give Morsi the same category of power that Hosni Mubarak had. Mubarak benefited from the support of a deep state that took 60 years to build: a military establishment, a judiciary, the state bureaucracy, and the security forces. Morsi has an entente with the military establishment, while Mubarak was a part of that establishment. Beyond that, Morsi has the antagonism of the rest of the state to deal with -- and in the coming weeks, months and years, Egyptians will likely see that antagonism unfold in multiple ways. The fact that Mahmoud Mekki, a reformist judge, was chosen as the new Vice President, may indicate Morsi's new target: the judiciary. Just as Tantawi and Anan were Mubarak's generals, Morsi may identify the leaders of the judiciary as Mubarak's judges: Mahmoud Mekki isn't Morsi's judge, but a figure that went to great lengths to push for the independence of the judiciary against the regime.
There is also another key difference between the presidency of Mubarak before the 11th of February 2011, and that of Morsi's after the 12th of August 2012: parliament. There are due to be parliamentary elections later this year, and it is a battleground where non-Islamist forces, non-SCAF forces, non-regime forces, have a chance to make their voices heard, in a way that was not possible under Mubarak's presidency. There are, legitimately, fears about unbridled power accruing to the presidency under Morsi -- democratic checks and balances cannot come from a non-elected institution like the SCAF. But they can come from an elected one, like parliament.
In the end, have Morsi and SCAF done the right thing for Egypt in these changes?
They have -- their motives and partisan interests aside, their moves have taken Egypt away from a political dynamic where non-elected officials were responsible for powers that belong to elected ones. That's not simply in the benefit of Morsi's presidency (whose democratic mandate was weak), but the Egyptian presidency for the future. The room for Egypt's democratic potential did not decrease with these moves: it only widened.
Now, that potential must be fulfilled. In this regard, there are three issues that cannot be overlooked. Firstly, the constitution that is to be written must be one that represents not simply a deal between different power interests in Egypt, such as the MB and the SCAF -- but Egypt as a whole. Over the coming weeks and months, we shall see what sort of constitutional assembly emerges -- and it is in Egypt's best interests for that to be as widely representative as possible. Secondly, the next parliamentary elections cannot be ignored. More than ever, that institution is a key one that will serve to be a check and a balance against the office of the presidency (and not just this presidency). Political forces ignore that institution at its peril.
Thirdly, and most importantly, for this period and the coming period: the real work of accountability, that goes beyond institutions and electoral politics . The new Egypt is one where there are, indeed, new freedoms that previously were taken away by the former regime: the most key of which is the freedom to call officials to task. Accountability is the bedrock of any just system of governance, and it needs to be deepened and widened in the new Egypt. Support for President Morsi against Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, by many pro-revolution Egyptians did not give him a blank cheque: and nor does support for his moves, in co-ordination with the SCAF, against Tantawi and Anan, grant him the same. It should only mean that the level of scrutiny and accountability upon him increases and intensifies -- in the streets, in the media, in civil society at large. That, after all, is democracy.