Egypt evolving along with Morsi’s relationship with military

In a July ceremony at an air force base in Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is flanked by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, left, and Lt. Gen. Sami Anan. Morsi has since dismissed Tantawi as defense minister and military commander and Anan as military chief of staff.
(Fady Fares, Egyptian Presidency / Associated Press)

CAIRO — The Egyptian military had long been run by aging generals and ambitious colonels who for six decades guarded the nation’s power while sitting poolside at social clubs and enriching themselves and their ranks through an intricate business empire.

A major or a captain could collect stars on his epaulets and slip gracefully into retirement by managing an olive oil business, a cement factory or a string of other military-controlled corporations that by some estimates account for 10% of the country’s economy. Top officers faced little oversight and were respected by a country that saw them as patriots in an otherwise reviled government.

That opaque world was upended last week by President Mohamed Morsi’s purge of the military brass, an extraordinary move that has shown the conservative Islamist to be a surprisingly formidable politician even as it raised questions about the emerging relationship between the former Muslim Brotherhood leader and the new generals.

Some suggest the purge changed the face of the armed forces, not its heart. Others, perhaps overexcitedly, warn that Islamist strains may eventually pervade the officers’ corps. But it is clear that the struggle between the secular military, which receives $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid, and the conservative Islamist will continue to shape Egypt’s stormy transition to democracy.

Morsi was abetted by younger officers frustrated by declining professionalism and leadership that culminated in an ambush by masked Islamic militants this month that killed 16 Egyptian police officers in the Sinai peninsula near the Israeli border. The military had gradually, and then very quickly, lost its gleam.


It appears a consensus has been reached for the military, which ruled for 17 months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, to focus on soldiering instead of political maneuvering, although the army is not likely to relinquish control of its business holdings. The armed forces remain a potent counterbalance that can intervene if its commanders sense Morsi is tilting too heavily toward an Islamist agenda. Yet it is the president who is now suddenly on top.

Morsi has executive authority and — with no parliament — full legislative powers that are certain to play into the drafting of a new constitution. In its efforts to contain Islamists, the military conjured a legal and political limbo that Morsi exploited: one powerful organization, the military, replaced by another, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi’s recent military appointments, however, indicate that the ideologies between the two sometimes overlap. The new armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Sedky Sobhy, wrote a paper critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East during his study at the National War College in Washington in 2005. His thoughts represent the misgivings many Arabs and the Muslim Brotherhood have about the United States.

“The United States’ regional strategy in the Middle East needs to be redefined since it cannot continue to simply revolve around the issues of national security for Israel and military security of the Middle Eastern oil supplies and reserves,” Sobhy wrote.

He added: “The one-sided nature of the United States-Israel strategic relationship has not only caused actual harm to the cause of peace with numerous victims among Arab populations ... but it has inflamed Arab passions.”

The president’s dismissals of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 76, as defense minister and Lt. Gen. Sami Anan as military chief of staff reflected the suspicion the old-guard generals felt toward Islamists. The new defense minister and commander of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, was in Tantawi’s inner circle but is a generation younger than his former boss.

“There won’t be major differences right away inside the military,” said Talaat Mosallam, a security analyst and retired major general. “These appointments are a temporary change that could lead to appointments of others in the future who will have closer ties to the Brotherhood.”

Such a prospect would have been fantasy during Mubarak’s 30-year secular rule, which ended in February 2011. It symbolizes the transformation of a once-outlawed Islamist organization and shows that the military, at least for now, has acquiesced to the broad outlines of a civilian government and a president who is more strategically savvy than many had anticipated.

The scenario is similar to the siphoning of authority from the Turkish military by the Islamist party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It remains to be seen how much the Egyptian military will cede.

“The disaster would be that we find ourselves forming an army like Pakistan’sthat grows beards and fights a war for implementation of sharia,” or Islamic law, wrote Ibrahim Issa, an influential editor and columnist, in Al-Tahrir newspaper.

The military firings were the result of a president angling to reclaim the authority the generals had stripped from his office and by officers frustrated by what they saw as Tantawi’s sclerotic leadership and lack of vision. As Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years, Tantawi was increasingly viewed as failing to adapt his conventional military view in a time of global terrorism.

“The tactical and operational readiness of the Egyptian Armed Forces has decayed” under Tantawi’s leadership, stated a 2008 U.S. diplomatic memo.

Another cable, written the same year, quoted analysts as saying the military was “in intellectual and social decline.” It said a disgruntled mid-level officers’ corps was “harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates.”

This simmering resentment intensified after the embarrassing attacks in Sinai by Islamic militants. The incident gave both Morsi and the younger officers the impetus to act. The military is secretive and impenetrable, making it impossible to discern the level of contact between Morsi and restive officers in the days leading to Tantawi’s forced retirement. But the split in the armed forces was evident.

“The primary division was between those officers who wanted to truly modernize their institution and those who just wanted to benefit personally from it,” said Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “The new era, if there is to be one, would see a much greater professionalization of the military.”

The adversarial relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military has at times been brushed aside for mutual interests. Activists have accused the Brotherhood of not protesting against the military last year as part of a deal to advance its political agenda.

The new commander, Gen. Sisi, former head of military intelligence and no reformist, could emerge as an ally for Morsi, an inexperienced president facing police and domestic intelligence agencies loyal to remnants of the Mubarak regime. The military, in turn, may no longer be the target of antigovernment protests that had threatened its stature and parallel economy.

“The military in Egypt has always been a black box; nobody can assert what will happen or what happened,” said Rabab El-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “Morsi chose a strong man. Sisi comes from military intelligence. He understands the picture and the map of where the military should be.”

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.