As the post-revolutionary transition unfolds in Egypt, events continue to unravel at top speed. The past few weeks have seen the country’s newly elected President, Mohamed Morsi, come under heavy criticism for everything from widespread water and electricity cuts to the closing of two independent media outlets. At the same time, Morsi has taken bold steps to redefine the balance of power between the presidency and the military. After replacing several members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and rescinding SCAF’s constitutional amendment, Morsi has seemingly recaptured important executive powers, and brought an end to the military’s direct control over Egypt’s transitional period.
Morsi and the Media
Morsi faced a barrage of criticism after two independent media outlets were shutdown by the state’s censorship unit. The first was an independent television channel, Fara’een, belonging to Tawfiq Okasha, an extremely outspoken commentator on Egyptian politics. The second was a privately owned newspaper charged, Al-Dostour, which was charged with instigating and creating sectarian tension and closed by court order on August 11.
These and other examples of media censorship are central to the broader struggle between Morsi and the military. As Shahira Amin, a former state television news anchor, points out, “several Mubarak-era journalists, editors, and television presenters have chosen to side with SCAF in the past month.” At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood has accused state media of trying to undermine Morsi, both during and after the presidential elections. In response to these developments, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have introduced media restrictions.
While media censorship is not new to the transitional period, the state media’s anti-revolutionary bias has sparked the ire of many activists. On multiple occasions, the Egyptian state television and radio building, Maspero, has been the symbolic battleground between revolutionary and regime forces. Long accused by activists of spreading pro-regime propaganda, in October 2011, Maspero was the site of a horrifying massacre of Copts by the military. Later, state television incorrectly reported that the clashes were between security forces and thugs.
An Overhaul of SCAF
In a dramatic chain of events that ended on August 12, Morsi replaced Hussein Tantawi and Sami Annan, while also rescinding SCAF’s supplementary constitutional declaration. Tantawi, defense minister and head of SCAF, was one of the military’s most prominent faces. Annan, another prominent SCAF member, served as Chief of Staff. Morsi did, however, appoint both Tantawi and Annan as presidential advisors, while other retiring members of SCAF were given senior government jobs.
What began with the resignation of Tantawi and Annan has transformed into a major overhaul of SCAF. A few days after these events, another SCAF member, Major General Hassan El-Roweiny, also retired, the sixth official to leave the council.
Numerous analysts have speculated that recent events in Sinai, where 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed on the border with Israel, spurred Morsi to action. Many Egyptians believe that if the military had acted as soldiers rather than politicians, the attack may have been averted. With discontent reportedly on the rise among the younger generation of military officers, an internal movement to return the army to protecting, rather than running, the country may be afoot.
Under SCAF’s constitutional declaration, should the current parliament have failed to carry out its functions, SCAF would have had the right to dissolve parliament, and appoint a constitutional committee of its own. By canceling SCAF’s amendment, Morsi delegated himself the authority to select a constitutional committee in the case of parliament deadlock, giving him effective control over the constitution-writing process. He also gave himself the right to draft laws and the national budget.
Morsi’s move is very significant. SCAF’s constitutional supplement transferred several powers from the president to the military, including the ability to make military personnel changes. By rescinding this declaration, Morsi effectively returned these powers back to the president.
For many Egyptians, Morsi’s decision to challenge vested military interests has transformed his image from that of a passive president to a daring politician, increasing both his popularity and his power.
The rescinding of the constitutional declaration also goes against Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, which had previously found SCAF’s supplementary constitutional amendment to be valid. As of yet, it is unclear whether Egypt’s judiciary will challenge Morsi’s move.
The Military in Egyptian Society
Notwithstanding these developments, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Egyptian military. In Egypt, the military is a state within a state, a complex political-economic superstructure that has stretched itself into almost all major sectors of society.
The military is an economic powerhouse in Egypt, reportedly controlling anywhere from 5 to 40% of the economy. The Egyptian military has also historically enjoyed substantial public support. Prior to the January 25th uprising, all three presidents came from the military. Its role in the 1952 revolution as well as in Egyptian wars with Israel are pivotal events in the country’s public imagination. Finally, its reach stretches deepen within Egyptian society as universal conscription ensures that most families have members serving in the military at any one time.
Considering the military’s economic interests and public popularity, it would be dangerous to assume that SCAF will now take a backseat and relinquish all power. As Mona Makram-Ebeid, former member of parliament under Mubarak, has pointed out, the military is unlikely to withdraw from politics completely anytime soon. “They have the economic power, they have the military power, and they have, no matter what, the love and respect of the great majority of the people.”
Despite wide public support and vast economic and political interests, increasing public scrutiny placed the military in an uncomfortable position while it ran the country.
As it has for the past 50-odd years, the military prefers to wield power from behind the scenes. As such, the generals most likely reached a deal with Morsi to secure a “safe exit” from directing Egypt’s day-to-day affairs. While there is little doubt that Morsi’s actions are daring and signify a willingness to exert independence, history has shown that militaries do not simply retire from politics unless it is in their interest to do so. As it has in the past, the military will attempt to further its own interests by using the state media apparatus and other mechanisms to try and indirectly influence Egypt’s politics and economy.
While Egypt’s future is unpredictable and the process of political decision-making remains opaque, a few things are clear. Repressed by successive Egyptian regimes, the Muslim Brotherhood is now focused on maintaining its power and will act accordingly. Similarly, the military, which has long had economic and political power in Egypt, despite successive regimes, will act in order to safeguard its interests in various sectors of Egyptian society.
*Sara Salem is an Egyptian PhD student at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her interests include colonialism, neo-colonialism, feminism, geopolitics, and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter @saramsalem.