Ossie Makepeace writes from Cairo: The head of the Egyptian armed forces, the almost legendary Field Marshal Mohamad Tantawi, and the chief of staff General Sami Annan have been dramatically sacked.
Officially, the Field Marshal is to take early retirement – certainly earlier than the old campaigner had expected – by order of President Mohammed Mursi who has also torn up an interim order made by the military (before Mursi was sworn in as leader) that no President has the power to rule on military matters including the appointment of commanders.
This is the Muslim Brotherhood President telling the country and particularly the forces that the military does not run Egypt as they have in living memory. However, before the champions of Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring jump for joy, two major points full of dangerous consequences should be thought through.
Firstly, because of that constitutional declaration curbing the President’s powers over the military, it may be that the army will argue that constitutionally the President does not have the powers to sack the Field Marshal.
Secondly therefore, Field Marshal Tantawi may not accept the ruling. And General Annan might follow suit.
The President is clearly advised that the majority of Egyptians support such action. This is because the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were as much against the military as the Mubarak dynasty itself. When Mubarak went, Field Marshal Tantawi was appointed by the military as interim ruler of Egypt and was enormously reluctant to hand over to the democratically elected civil power. It is therefore easy to see that behind this face-off is Mursi’s need to show that the people will rule from now on. The proper place of the military is to protect that right and not to decide what rights the people should or should not have. For example, the military body, known as The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces dissolved Parliament after the elections because it did not like the legislature’s make up which is dominated by the President’s Islamic supporters.
The military contention that it has a responsibility to establish stability before releasing power to civilians is from their point of view reinforced by the recent events in the Sinai.
The infiltration of jihadists into that border region separating the Palestinian Gaza, Egypt and Israel and the fighting that has followed supports the military case; especially as the Israeli government has insisted that it is up to the Egyptians and not the Israelis to maintain security in that area. President Mursi has accused the military of failing to do just that.
Israeli intelligence services are said to have warned the Egyptian military of increased activity on the border of Sinai and of imminent jihadist action. If that is true, then the Egyptian military failed. President Mursi has already sacked the Intelligence chief as a result.
When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was here in July she warned about the difficulties embedded in any political transition process. Mursi and his supporters agreed she was correct and promised that the 1979 Camp David Israel-Egypt peace accord would be honoured.
That is not the problem for the Egyptian leader. His task is two-fold and in the first instance almost impossible. His first ambition is to fulfil the expectations of the Egyptian people who wanted change – and we should remember that not all did. That is a task that will take years rather than months and so attracts further disappointment and probably street protest again.
The second task is to straighten out the military. If he is to be seen, especially by his own people, as the man in charge and not under the jackboot of the likes of the Field Marshal, then Mr Mursi must win any confrontation with the military’s Supreme Council.
That’s what today in Cairo was all about. We have to accept that Mursi may be defied. The consequence of that defiance could be utterly catastrophic for the immediate future of the people and country of Egypt.
There is a single good sign: the Field Marshal and the general have been appointed to the sinecure of presidential advisers and given Egypt’s highest honour, the Grand Collar of the Nile. Presumably this means they have accepted it is time to go.
More interestingly, could it be that backstairs negotiations have been going on between Mursi’s office and a few of the more moderate generals? Very possible for this to happen. There are those in the military who acknowledge that what happened in Sinai (not forgetting that 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed) was a very big miss.
So, a new generation of senior officers could turn out to be on the side of democracy, however alien that has always been throughout their careers.