A brave act by a strong man – but there may be repercussions
Egypt is a nation still in turmoil. Cyril Townsend assesses the impact of the most recent show of strength by its new, civilian, leader in sacking the head of the armed forces.
In any country the sudden surprise sacking of a top General by a democratically elected leader is a big risk to take. We can think of General Douglas MacArthur, the autocratic Commander of the UN forces in the Korean War, who was relieved of his command by President Truman in 1951.
In Egypt the events of recent weeks may be a triumph for democracy of historic significance, but equally, when the democratic leadership is in deep political trouble it could lead to an attempted coup by those in the armed forces who have had their power, influence and money taken away.
Field Marshal Hussein Mohamed Tantawi (whose rank is a reminder that Britain was once responsible for the Egyptian Army) had been Defence Minister under President Mubarak for no less than 20 years. He was made Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in the aftermath of last year's revolution – in reality the ruler of Egypt's 83 million people. President Mohammed Morse dismissed the Field Marshal only a week after making him the Defence Minister. Many Egyptians had demanded the Field Marshal's trial, and execution, following the deaths of protestors and the mishandling of civilians in military rather than civil courts.
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The SCAF, which is comprised of over twenty Generals, staged a quasi judicial coup just a few days before the Presidential Election. The Supreme Constitutional Court, appointed before the revolution, decided to dissolve Egypt's first ever freely elected Parliament on a technical matter. This Court had the reputation of supporting Mubarak's followers.
The SCAF also wrote the new Constitution for the nation and it limited the President's powers. It was quick to take advantage of the revolutionaries' many political divisions. It seemed clear to most observers that while it claimed to put forward a case for political stability and economic advance, in reality it was keen to keep up the privileged status of the armed forces within Egyptian society, where they still control some 40% of the economy and receive great financial rewards.
I do not doubt that since 1922, when Egypt became independent, the armed forces have enjoyed considerable popular support, and today many Egyptians are worried over the political future. However, I have no doubt either that since the revolution the armed forces have presented a direct challenge to the democratic process.
President Morsi sacked the Field Marshal when an unexpected opportunity opened up after 16 Egyptian border guards were killed by suspected jihadists on the Sinai Peninsula. The jihadists had found it easy to increase their numbers in the area, although Tel Aviv had been warning Cairo over what was going on.
The Egyptian Army was woefully slow to respond to the threat presented by the jihadists; the primary responsibility of the Army is to protect the State. Many Egyptians will tell you the top Generals were too occupied by national politics at the time. Insurgents' camps on the Sinai Peninsula have since been attacked only 10 miles from the border with Israel.
We learn that the President and his advisers consulted junior members of the SCAF before moving against the Field Marshal. We may never learn all the details, but such secret consultations would have been extremely dangerous for those involved. It is likely that the Field Marshal had lost the support of many of his younger colleagues who considered his time was up. I suspect some guarantees would have been given as to his personal future.
In Tahrir Square a large crowd of the Muslim Brotherhood turned out to support the removal of the Field Marshall. The crowd called out: "The people support the President's decision." No doubt this was a warning to the Army not to oppose the elected politicians being granted real powers.
The behaviour of Washington towards the tug of war in Cairo between the Generals and the newly elected politicians has been fascinating to behold. Washington has had close ties with the Egyptian military for many years and seemed, at first, happy with the SCAF, and cautious over the Muslim Brotherhood. However, after a few months Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, told the Generals it was time to bow out of politics. It would be interesting to know the private advice given to her by Tel Aviv on this tricky issue.
The Arab world has been following closely these events: Egypt is too big and influential to be ignored in the region. Democracy has produced an Islamist President whose steadfastness and moderation have so far impressed many people. But he faces great risks on many sides.