A few days before Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, minister of defence, commander of Egypt’s armed forces and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), along with a large number of SCAF members were retired on 12 August, I received via email a paper by the prominent political science professor Yezid Sayigh who works at the US’s Carnegie Centre, titled "Above the State: The Officers’ Republic in Egypt," which expertly summarises the abundant literature about the nature of the Egyptian state since Anwar Abdel-Malek published his famous book about Egypt as a “military society.”
With great skill as a researcher, Sayigh was able to support this point of view and with great detail about the “incursion” of Egypt’s armed forces in all spheres, whereby it has accumulated privilege and infiltrated state agencies, especially oversight bodies as well as local government. It also penetrated society through the civil service, and the economy through infrastructure projects. Basically, the military institution, especially after the January 2011 revolution, held a “military guardianship” over Egyptian society through armed and organised power, “the covert state” and “deep state.”
Days after the publication of this research paper — which lacked some key references in some parts — a series of dramatic events occurred in Egypt that began on 5 August with the terrorist attack on a military border post. On 8 August, Major General Murad Muwafi, the chief of intelligence, was dismissed along with a handful of military top brass such as the commander of the Republican Guard and Military Police, as well as the governor of Sinai.
A few days after that, on 12 August, a decree by President Mohamed Morsi retired Tantawi, along with the Army’s chief of staff, Sami Anan, the commanders of the army’s ground, air and navy branches, and military commands.
SCAF was essentially reshuffled, a new minister of defence was appointed, and the military institution was almost entirely overhauled by the new civilian power. As for the old military guard, Tantawi was made an adviser to the president and decorated with the Order of the Nile; Anan also became a presidential adviser and decorated with the Order of the Republic. Major General Mohab Mameesh, the former navy chief, who was appointed as head of the Suez Canal Authority, told Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that he found out about the decision when his secretary woke him up to inform him he had been retired. He complied with the decision, as did all his SCAF colleagues and congratulated each other on the new posts they were each given.
What had happened to the military state and officers in Egypt that seemed to take the shape of the “dragon” depicted by Hobb in his famous book City of Dragons? They were very easily removed at the top, and it is likely that in the near future eliminations will continue as new appointments are made for governors, local government leaders, ambassadors, and other posts occupied by officers that are traditionally viewed as “enabling” the institution and that would remain forever.
The surgical operation was done with ease by a president who took office a few weeks earlier, who has no military forces he could use or security forces that could arrest his opponents if they chose to oppose him.
To explain the decisive action taken to end the extensively debated political struggle in Egypt between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood as the consequence of the massacre that occurred on the Egyptian-Israeli border, giving legitimacy to root changes, is an unconvincing argument. General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the new defence minister, was the chief of military intelligence, which considers Sinai a top priority, as does the new military leadership who — old and new — were at the heart of the new battle against terrorism in Sinai. Also, a crucial portion of the problem is rooted in Egypt’s regional relations with Israel, the peace agreement and accompanying security protocol, along with Egyptian-Palestinian relations.
The other explanation suggesting that these developments are nothing more than a tactical victory over the military institution because of “political fatigue” and physical exhaustion of the elderly senior military leaders, but is not in any way a strategic victory or substantially changes the balance of power in the political equation, is also unconvincing because of the ease of change that occurred. Also, in light of the military institution’s accumulative political power that is overwhelming, and sometimes brute.
What is always ignored is the legitimate powers in Egypt compared to the legitimacy of prevalent power in political literature. This legitimacy given to the institution of president enabled President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to remove the very influential Defence Minister Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer; he even dismissed Shams Badran a few hours after his appointment as president after the June defeat. The same thing happened with President Anwar Sadat when he terminated the ministers of war, media, intelligence and interior in one fell swoop.
Former President Hosni Mubarak also followed the same path when he dismissed Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazalah despite the latter’s wide popularity in the armed forces.
To argue that all the presidents came from military ranks is not enough to explain the absence of a “junta” or a military council, such as the case in Turkey or Latin America. Perhaps SCAF attempted such an endeavour when it issued the addendum to the Constitutional Declaration and formed the Supreme Defence Council that would take decisions by majority — namely military figures — irrespective of the president’s position. Perhaps this is what stripped the council of its legitimacy and gave the president the opportunity to exercise his legitimate powers in sidelining the old council.
A theory that seems to be based in fact is that Egypt’s military presidents gained legal and civil legitimacy in one way or another, which enabled them to confront the armed forces when it was time to choose. Perhaps it was the exaggerated influence of the military institution that was disproportionate to other factors in Egypt’s politics, society and economy — a point that is usually avoided in research about Egypt’s military elite — that took us by surprise when political events unfolded in the past few weeks.
But the story is not yet over, and Egypt is laden with many more developments. For the time being, however, those in power are purely civilian. What remains to be seen is what Egyptians will do with this; if civilians will be better or will the axiom "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" will still apply in new forms.
Abdel Monem Said is a columnist for Al Ahram where this article was published on Aug. 23, 2012