Egyptian president sacks military chief as border under attack

August 17, 2012
Tahrir Square on August 12.

After an armed attack killed 16 Egyptian guards on the border with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula, President Mohammed Morsi sacked defence minister and head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) Mohammed Tantawi, and his second in command, Sami Anan.

The move is part of an ongoing battle that has taken place between the Muslim Brotherhood — main political force that emerged after the overthrow of former dictator Hosni Mubarak — and SCAF, which took governmental power after Mubarak stepped down.

Tantawi assumed power after Mubarak, but was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi after a democratic election in June.

Before the election, SCAF dissolved the elected parliament, which the Brotherhood dominated with 47.18% of seats, and gave itself powers to veto any decisions made by a civilian president. It was widely suspected that SCAF was supporting the candidacy of Ahmed Shafik, an ex-minister of the Mubarak dictatorship who ran against Morsi. This resulted in a huge occupation of Tahrir Square led by the Brotherhood until it was announced that Morsi had won.

Eight days into his presidency, Morsi reinstated the parliament and annulled some of the dictatorial powers of the military.

The move against Tantawi and Anan is largely a way for the Brotherhood to “consolidate power”. But many believe this consolidation within a civilian government and removing the military from politics is a necessary step to push the popular process forward.

Al Jazeera said on August 13: "Thousands of Egyptians celebrated the announcement on Sunday night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that played home to the protests that ousted Mubarak. 'The people support the president's decision,' the crowd chanted." The Brotherhood said it was a fulfillment of the demands in support of the revolution.

The Washington Post reported that Muslim Brotherhood secretary general Mahmoud Hussein said: “They are the right decisions that fulfill the demands of the street and that people have been expecting for a long time.”

Others have speculated that there was a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF for SCAF to withdraw from politics in exchange for not being prosecuted for crimes committed while in power. Morsi's awarding of the Order of the Nile to Tantawi, Egypt's highest accolade, seems to confirm there is no chance Tantawi or others in SCAF will face prosecution.

The move probably represents a mixture of both and sums up the contradictory nature of the Brotherhood. They feel responsive to their support base and the popular movements, but are also responsive to the powerful elites in the military or Washington. Morsi has removed Tantawi, but is not willing to upset the apple cart too much by threatening to prosecute him.

The move, though, showed another important fact. The US, far from leading the process in Egypt, has had to respond to the shifting political terrain that the popular movement has built.

Just as the US was forced to abandon its support for Mubarak in favour of Tantawi, it has been forced to abandon Tantawi in favour of trying to bring Morsi into the fold. Weeks before Tantawi was sacked, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said: “It is my view, based on what I have seen, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.”

There was no public condemnation of Morsi from the US. In fact, the Egyptian president is scheduled to visit the US in September to meet with President Barack Obama.

The attacks in the Sinai provided a reason for Morsi to make his move. In his announcement of the sackings, he said he did not wish to embarrass anyone but wanted “the armed forces to devote themselves to a mission that is holy to all of us, which is protecting the nation”.

Al Jazeera said that on August 5, “gunmen stormed an army checkpoint on the border with Gaza and Israel, killing 16 soldiers as they were breaking their daily fast for the holy month of Ramadan”.

It is yet to be determined who carried out the attacks or for what reason, though the speculation is that it was a Jihadi group active in Gaza. The Jerusalem Post said on August 17: “Palestinians in the Gaza Strip reported that Hamas security forces have rounded up a number of suspects belonging to extremist Islamic groups in the context of efforts to solve the case.”

A joint military and police operation killed at least five people they described as “fighters” on August 12. This followed a military operation on August 10 that killed 20. Border police have been under attack almost every day.

Israel has since used the attacks to justify militarising the border even more and sent helicopter gunships to combat “Islamism”.

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