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The Short-Lived Second Republic: Morsi’s Troubled Relationship with the State

As a president, Morsi’s relationship with the military differed from that of his predecessors. Not only was he the first democratically elected civilian, but, more importantly, he was a leading member of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood. The history of Egypt’s security arrangements vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood complicated his relationship to the state’s institutions of power. First under Nasser’s military regime and then under Mubarak’s police apparatus, the Muslim Brotherhood spent decades trying to adjust to, and at times infiltrate, the iron fist of the state.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in forging a level of understanding with the scaf during the early phase of the transitional period. Following Mubarak’s ouster, the scaf assigned a committee of legal experts to amend articles of the 1971 constitution as a basis for its transitional rule. The handpicked committee included Muslim Brotherhood leaders,31 and in return the Muslim Brotherhood remained supportive of the military’s policies,32 despite the latter’s governance-related missteps.33 Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood supported the status quo rather than radical change, often ignoring revolutionaries’ demands.34 This understanding may have been facilitated by the common traits that both enjoy and value: strict discipline as well as hierarchy and obedience among their members. The political dynamics under Mubarak may have also facilitated the emergence of a level of cooperation between the two. The military’s disengagement from Mubarak’s repressive practices35 and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi’s disinterest in direct political governance may have alleviated fears regarding the military’s political ambitions.36

The early rapprochement gradually faltered after the parliamentary election gave Islamists over 70 percent of the People’s Assembly, contrary to most predictions.37 Two crises registered the deteriorating relationship between the popular movement and state institutions, in particular the military and the judiciary. The first crisis revolved around the right of the parliamentary majority to change the cabinet.38 The second crisis revolved around the parliamentary election law, which allowed members of political parties to run for independent seats. Relations plunged as the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional one-third of parliament seats and recommended disbanding the assembly. Only days prior to the second round of the presidential election, the scaf, still in its capacity as the official governing body of the country, dissolved the parliament and announced an addendum to its earlier constitutional declaration, reclaiming legislative authorities and minimizing the power of the incoming president over a broad range of issues including military affairs.39 The measure indicated the deep crisis between the military and the incoming president, and ushered in a spiral of mistrust between those who controlled the state and those rooted within society.

Morsi won the presidency by a slim margin of votes. Aided by a powerless consultative body, the Shura Council, and having a shaky relationship with the state apparatus, his biggest support, outside his movement, came from the prodemocracy and revolutionary forces. Two months into his term, he formed a new government, annulled the scaf’s addendum, and exercised some control over military appointments. He introduced a limited but important reshuffle of top military and intelligence posts in the aftermath of the killing of seventeen Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in August 2012. Mubarak’s longtime minister of defense, chief of staff, and General Intelligence Service head were all dismissed.

The removal of the old generals worked to the benefit of the military as it injected new blood into the upper echelons of its leadership. The new minister of defense, twenty years Tantawi’s junior, wasted no time in reinvigorating the strong but stale institution. General Sisi adopted a strategy to meet the internal and external challenges facing the military. The strategy was based on three principles: to shield the institution from the surrounding political turmoil and prevent its fragmentation, to rebuild bridges with social and political forces and regain public trust in the military, and to prevent the infiltration of Muslim Brotherhood ideology into the officer corps. By focusing on the improvement of military preparedness, initiating joint military exercises with neighboring Arab states, and opening up military talks with great powers besides the United States, the new minister of defense seemed more responsive to the most important technical goals desired by the officer corps. Sisi also paid attention to the internal cohesion of the rank and file, increasing the financial and material benefits for active and retired personnel and their families. Freed from the burdens and volatilities of governance, the military also invested more energy in revamping its public image and mending connections with social and political forces, especially those who became more critical of the Muslim Brotherhood exclusionary rule. At the same time, strict background checks on new recruits were intensified to prevent the penetration of Islamist ideologies into the armed forces.

In the following months, Morsi’s ability to work out differences with the opposition and even with Islamist partners faltered. The Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoyed hegemonic power over the presidency, the prime minister’s office, the Shura Council, and the constitution-writing committee, adopted unilateral decision-making practices that alienated significant segments of the country’s political landscape and increased society’s polarization. In November 2012, only a few weeks before a vote on the newly drafted constitution, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration giving himself broad powers and removing judicial oversight over his decrees. The move created a strong public backlash against Morsi, especially as it came only a few days after he had held closed meetings with prominent political leaders who had led the opposition against Mubarak and supported Morsi’s presidential bid against Mubarak’s disciple, Ahmed Shafiq. That Morsi did not disclose his intention to issue the declaration with any of the revolutionary comrades was received as sign of encroaching authoritarianism by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. Levels of trust between the presidency and most political parties plummeted, such that the president’s call for a “national dialogue” was shunned while the opposition welcomed a similar call by the military. In an attempt to contain the explosive situation, then minister of defense General Sisi called upon all parties to convene. The president, who first accepted, declined the general’s invitation a day later. The contradicting statements issued by the presidential office negatively affected Morsi’s public image and exposed the limits of his independence vis-a-vis other leaders within the Muslim Brotherhood, who objected to Sisi’s initiative.40 Wishing to limit the military’s political role, the Muslim Brotherhood was not in favor of a military-brokered negotiation between the presidency and the opposition.41 In the following weeks, the military grew more frustrated with the inability of the presidency and opposition to work out differences,42 given the increasing need to attend to new security threats developing in Sinai and on the western Libyan border.43

The second half of Morsi’s rule witnessed soaring tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces. Overestimating the movement’s power at the ballot box and unable to take notice of the tactics of the new military leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood and its close allies adopted a policy of attack, albeit verbally, against the armed forces. In his weekly message, the general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Badie, described Egyptian soldier as docile and called for their indoctrination.44 A few months later, another prominent figure described the military’s leadership as cowardly mice.45 Perhaps the most serious attack came from the head of the Islamist al-Wasat Party and a close Morsi associate, Abul Ela Madi, who claimed that Egyptian generals were involved in criminal activities. Madi accused the General Intelligence Service of training an army of three hundred thousand thugs to bring havoc to Egyptian streets. In a public meeting, Madi stated that the information was relayed to him by then president Morsi.46 The statement was most alarming to the military given its close association with the General Intelligence Service.47 The allegation was substantiated by neither Madi nor Morsi and ran contrary to dynamics of domestic repression that characterized Mubarak’s rule.48 Just days after the allegations were made, a meeting between the scaf and the president took place at the Ministry of Defense. Generals expressed grave concern over three main issues: what they saw as an orchestrated smear campaign directed at their institution,49 the lack of consultation with the military regarding development projects in the Suez Canal and on the eastern border, and the president’s ban on military actions against militant jihadist groups in Sinai. Morsi’s acknowledgment of such concerns could not prevent the deterioration in the relationship between him and the military.50

In the following months, public discontent with Morsi’s performance grew, in part due to the exclusionary policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, the presidency’s stubbornness toward popular calls for change of cabinet, and his inability to forge cooperative relations with various groups within the state and society.51 The Tamarrud Movement gained momentum as it collected signatures for a petition calling for early presidential elections. Mass protests erupted on June 30. Again, the military intervened to oust a president, bringing the second republic to an end.52

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