Mursi vs. SCAF: Two Weeks Later
Cairo - The day President Mohammed Mursi ordered the retirement of the Minister of Defense Hussein Tantawi, Egypt was caught by surprise at the new balance of power. On August 12, it was difficult to immediately see all the possible ramifications.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president’s reshuffling within the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were welcomed by many activists. It was a victory by an elected, civilian president over an unelected military body that has given itself the right to write the rules and avoid accountability.
As the shock waned, as analysts and politicians found some answers to their numerous questions and as the celebration of this “victory” subsided, it was time for an obvious realization. The Muslim Brotherhood, who just two weeks ago was complaining about the limited authorities given to Mursi, is now in control, full control. It’s a realization that presented itself in the first week, but grew in strength over the days.
In addition to the SCAF reshuffles, Mursi also canceled a constitutional addendum which the SCAF had issued towards the end of the presidential elections to give itself powers over the elected president, a de facto influence over the drafting of the constitution, and legislative powers. The eleventh hour constitutional decree was an illegitimate usurpation of power. Mursi canceled it, but gave these powers to himself.
Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, described Mursi’s decisions as “a necessary corrective to the intrusion of the military on the prerogatives of civilian governance and an important check on the expanding political ambitions of the Egyptian military.”
However, he also described them as a “unilateral power grab [that] parallels the original sin in Egypt's chaotic and turbulent transition,” a reference to SCAF’s takeover of power in March 2011.
The debate transcends the regular MB versus SCAF deliberations to reflect the deep-rooted distrust of the Muslim Brothers, even among those who supported Mursi during the elections. While some of the concerns are exaggerated, others find their valid justification in Mursi’s other decisions.
The government under the new president’s leadership got more aggressive in its crackdown on journalists critical of Mursi. The fact that it targeted controversial and infamous names or that Mursi later removed the prison sentences on publishing crimes did little to assuage fears about the MB intentions in governance.
The track record of the MB in power – especially when they held 47 percent of the now dissolved People’s Assembly – isn’t promising, especially given that Mursi inherited a regime and a defunct legal system designed for rulers’ abuse. The recent selection of chief editors for state-run papers reflected a continuity of the Mubarak media policy rather than a move towards professionalism and merit-based appointments.
These concerns are further informed by theories that describe the new friendly relationship between the MB and the generals Mursi appointed. The tension between these two poles of powers – Tantawi’s SCAF was presumed to be the most powerful – was replaced with mutual understanding.
Activists frustrated with SCAF “crimes” won’t see the retired generals in court – maybe with pressure, but that’s a remote possibility. Groups that have been working to expose the militarization of the state through systematic appointment of officers in civilian jobs will continue their work as usual. Nothing in Mursi’s changes suggest a structural or institutional change. He even appointed a general as head of the Suez Canal Authority.
“The preserving of military privileges, its economic projects and the scope of its power – even its expansion [in a bid] to pass the change of leadership – will enhance the status quo of a state within a state, which is the original ailment and the core legacy of the July state,” Tamer Wagih wrote in al-Masry al-Youm last week.
Yet, he saw an opportunity for action, very much different from calls for an August 24 protest against the MB – calls led by part of the camp that had previously declared it preference of military rule over the MB’s.
Wagih suggested taking advantage of Mursi’s success in removing military leaders to pressure him to achieve social, economic and political demands through a popular, grassroots movement. This popular movement, he explained, should reveal the deal that was struck, not between Mursi and Tantawi, but between the conservative and reformist MB and the wing of the “new liberal state” that is not as strongly aligned with the former regime.
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