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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Morsi's bloodless coup spikes the army's guns

Egyptian president's clear-out of the old regime echoes the ruthlessness of some of his authoritarian predecessors.

CAIRO // The uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak may not have ended Egypt's tradition of authoritarian government.

Mohammed Morsi has forced the two top military officers to retire, there has been a crackdown on the media and the Muslim Brotherhood says it will contest every seat in forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Taken together, these developments have aroused fears among some Egyptians that Mr Morsi may be replicating the authoritarian rule of his predecessor, with the president and the Brotherhood the contemporary incarnation of Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party.

"He has asserted himself as the commander in chief and a powerful president, not a figurehead with limited powers," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist who runs the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Studies and Research in Cairo.

"He is putting his followers from the Brotherhood in all the key positions of the state. It has many similarities to Mubarak and his NDP."

Nevertheless, for Islamists, and others at least willing to give the movement a chance, it marks an important step towards overhauling Egypt's traditional political arrangements and transforming the country into a more prosperous, religious state.

Until Sunday's announcement - which also included the annulment of parts of an earlier constitutional declaration that had stripped the presidency of some of its powers and the appointment of a well known judge as the vice president - Mr Morsi was viewed as a largely unambitious, incremental leader. Rather than choose familiar political figures for his cabinet, he had appointed mid-level engineers and doctors. Just five came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which Mr Morsi had been a senior leader before his inauguration on June 30. His 100-day plan has so far succeeded only in launching an awareness campaign to persuade Egyptians not to throw litter on the streets.

By the time his spokesman finished reading out a statement about the changes on Sunday, Mr Morsi was being heralded as the first president to quell the military's influence in politics and governance since the 1952 Free Officer's revolution that toppled the monarchy.

In line with Egyptian conspiracy theorising over the past 18 months, there were claims afterwards of coups, counter-coups and coups within coups.

How the decision came about to oust two of Mr Morsi's most powerful opponents remains a mystery. Some say Scaf, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, was consulted on the changes, others say they were not.

What was clear when the dust settled is that the president had consolidated power in a brazen move that gave him more tools to prove that an Islamist such as himself can make life better in Egypt or set himself up for a huge fall if he should fail.

Scaf took control of Egypt after Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, and was in charge of the road map to democracy in the ensuing year and a half. But it proved reluctant to hand over power to a civilian president and carved out an even greater role in public affairs, after the Supreme Constitutional Court ordered parliament to be dissolved, by naming itself the de facto legislative branch.

Mr Morsi's decisions on Sunday appeared to end that tug of war. A grim but strategic opportunity had opened after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a border post with Israel in Sinai on August 5. Mr Morsi replaced the head of intelligence and was able to assert power more aggressively over the generals.

Mr Ibrahim, the sociologist, said the moment was likely to go down in history as Mr Morsi's comprehensive cleansing of the old regime from the government.

There are echoes of actions by his predecessors, Mr Ibrahim said. In 1811, Muhammad Ali Pasha took control from the Mamluks by having his opponents assassinated after a banquet at the Cairo Citadel. Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1954, had his guards kidnap the president, Mohammed Naguib, and relieved him of his post. In 1971, Anwar Sadat launched his "corrective revolution" to purge the government of Nasserists who sought to oppose his policies.

"What Mohammed Morsi did on Sunday was something similar," Mr Ibrahim said. "He saw that he needed to put himself in full control or else he would not be able to accomplish anything. The impressive thing is he was able to shake-up the system without any blood spilt."

Egyptians took the news in their stride, with many cautiously condoning the sweep of top military officials from Scaf.

Ahmad Sarhan, the former campaign spokesman for the failed presidential contender and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, said pumping new blood into the military was inevitable.

"If Shafiq had been elected, it might have happened even sooner," he said. "This was a necessary step for Egypt."

Even Kamal El Helbawy, a former spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe who left the group because he disagreed with their quest for absolute power, called the move "courageous".

"We need a younger generation in significant posts," he said. "This was actually very smooth and it is accepted by many people."

For the liberals and secularist-minded groups in Egypt, the president's enlarged powers brought into sharper focus how important the parliamentary elections will be in providing a counterbalance to the Brotherhood's domination of the government.

Liberals failed to win enough seats to be influential in the previous parliament, which was dissolved in June. The Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Al Nour had controlled nearly 70 per cent of the seats.

"The objective now is to get the non-Islamist political parties to act together, under one umbrella, so they can get a good number of the seats," said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of parliament during Mubarak's rule.

"Liberal parties and leftists have been unable to get their act together or unite. We can contest the Muslim Brotherhood only through the ballot box."

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This article has been altered to correct the year that Muhammad Ali Pasha's massacre of Mamelukes at the Cairo Citadel took place. It took place in 1811, not 1805 as originally stated.