Dismissal of Tantawi is a calculated risk
In a bold move designed to assert presidential authority, on Sunday 12 August President Morsi cancelled a controversial constitutional ruling of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which severely limited the powers of the president over military affairs. The ruling had been hastily declared before Morsi came to power and was widely viewed as a deliberate attempt by the interim SCAF government to curb the influence of a potentially unsympathetic future president.
After dissolving this dubious constitutional impediment, Morsi instigated his reshuffle. Tantawi, the close associate of former President Hosni Mubarak, was replaced as defense minister (effective immediately) with experienced army-man Abdul-Fatah Al-Sessi. The Chief of Staff of the Army, General Sami Anan, was replaced with Lieutenant-General Sidki Sayed Ahmed.
The forced retirement of the two most senior Generals in Egypt is clearly significant and represents the most notable power grab by the president’s office against the Army since Morsi’s election in June. Notwithstanding the fact that Tantawi has served as defense minister for over twenty years, and was a prominent embodiment of continuity from the Mubarak era, the recent context of Morsi’s audacity is the on-going disorder in the Sinai.
Egypt was shocked last week by the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai, apparently at the hands of an extremist militia, and since then the military establishment have been losing face following failed attempts to restore order. The blame game surrounding an obvious lack of security in Sinai has included some far-fetched accusations aimed at both the Muslim Brotherhood—Morsi’s political benefactors—and the military. Initially, speculation was rife that the crackdown in Sinai demonstrated that it was the military calling the shots in Egypt. The president was in an awkward position whereby failing to condemn a violent insurgency would expose him to accusations of complicity in an Islamist plot, but strong support for a military crackdown could have portrayed him as an Army stooge.
The dismissals—especially the dismissal of Tantawi—are a calculated gamble by Morsi, to show that his election victory gives him a mandate to rule Egypt as he sees fit, not as a military flunky manipulated by Mubarak’s old aides. In the near future it will become obvious if Morsi’s gamble has paid off. A legal challenge to these sweeping constitutional imperatives is entirely possible, and that could plunge Egypt into months—if not years—of uncertainty.