Mursi Sidelines Egypt’s Top Generals Amid Power Struggle

Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party Head Mohamed Mursi
Mohamed Mursi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi ordered the retirement of the country’s two top generals, in his most ambitious push yet to reclaim some of the authority the military had stripped from his office.

The retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, and Lieutenant General Sami Enan, the armed forces’ chief of staff, drew mixed reactions from Egyptians. Thousands poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square late yesterday to celebrate what they said was another step toward the completion of the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Others said they were concerned about the growing hold of the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Mursi for the presidency, on Egyptian politics.

“There is no way that we can consider these surprise decisions to be in the interests of the reforms called for under the revolution,” el-Saeed Kamel, the head of the secular Democratic Front party, said by phone, adding that they represent a “contradiction to the promises Mursi made.”

Mursi also voided a constitutional addendum the military council had enacted before he took office that stripped the presidency of some its powers. The decree was a cornerstone in the struggle between the Islamist and the senior generals who lead the country on its transition to democracy after the ouster of Mubarak and who officially handed authority to the president in June.

Presidential Advisers

Mursi moved to soften the blow amid questions about whether the military council had been consulted in advance. The president named the two men as presidential advisers and said he was not trying to “marginalize anyone.”

“The decisions I made today were not directed at specific individuals or intended to embarrass any institution,” Mursi said in a televised speech. “I never meant to send a negative message to anyone, but what I was seeking was the interest of this country and its people.”

The military reshuffle came days after Mursi ordered into retirement the acting head of the country’s intelligence service and fired other top security officials following the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers by militants in Sinai on Aug. 5.

“The events in Sinai were important,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center, said by phone. “They weren’t the cause but they did offer Mursi a pretext to reshuffle. Mursi is winning this particular period of the struggle, but we’ve learned from Egypt that the situation seems fluid. One day, the military seems on top and other days Mursi seems on top.”

‘Long Struggle’

“The best way to understand this is as another chapter in the long struggle between Mursi and the Brotherhood and the deep state,” Hamid said.

In addition to retiring Tantawi and Enan, Mursi appointed Judge Mahmoud Mekki as vice president and removed the top defense aides, Mursi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, said in a televised address yesterday. Mekki, who the state-run Ahram Gate identified as the younger brother of the newly appointed justice minister, was an outspoken critic of election fraud under Mubarak.

Mursi also named General Abdelfatah al-Seesi defense minister and Sedki Sobhi as chief of staff of the armed forces, elevating him to the rank of general, Ali said.

Essam el-Erian, the deputy head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said on his Twitter account that Mursi had exercised his sovereign rights and “achieved the goals of the revolution.”

Struggling Economy

The move comes as Egypt’s economy struggles to recover from a year-and-a-half of unrest, with businesses facing frequent labor strikes and power cuts in the summer months. International reserves have fallen to $14.4 billion, more than 50 percent below their levels in January 2011.

While uncertainty surrounds the latest announcement, it could offer some semblance of policy-making stability for investors, Emad Mostaque, a U.K-based analyst at Religare Noah, wrote in an e-mailed note yesterday.

“My gut is telling me that this is accepted, which would be hugely positive for Egypt as it would mark a transition to proper civilian rule,” Mostaque said.

While Egypt has been negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a $3.2 billion loan for more than a year, an advance team from the IMF will travel to Cairo to discuss terms before the end of August, according to Finance Minister Momtaz el-Saieed. In the meantime, Egypt has secured help from Qatar, which pledged a $2 billion deposit in the country’s central bank while the U.S. also pledged $550 million.

Islamist Push

Since Mursi took office, the Brotherhood has filed several lawsuits against publications the group maintains have sullied its image. The Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament last week appointed new editors-in-chief of state-run media in a process that journalists have likened to Mubarak-era media restrictions. One prominent satellite channel anchor is under investigation for allegedly inciting violence against Mursi.

Those efforts are read by some as “the beginning of the Brotherhoodization of Egypt, and that will not be met positively by a lot of people in the country,” Hani Sabra, Mideast analyst with the Eurasia Group in New York, said by phone.

At the same time, Sabra said it was unlikely that Mursi had decided to push out Tantawi and Enan without at least notifying the military council. “I don’t think that he would have made this decision if there weren’t other senior people in the military who guaranteed that they had his back,” Sabra said.

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