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Mohammed Morsi is hardly the bumbler he was initially thought to be.
When Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) first became president of Egypt, many commentators imagined that power in Egypt was still firmly in the hands of the military and the then head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
As Daniel Pipes and Cynthia Farahat wrote, “Tantawi…had handpicked Morsi to become president, seeing him as the safest option, someone who could be manipulated or (if necessary) replaced…[He] wanted the obscure, inelegant and epileptic Morsi to run for president because Shater [the original MB candidate] was too dangerous and another Brotherhood candidate- Abdel Moneim Aboul Fettouh, too popular.”
In this view, Morsi was a mere bumbling, clueless idiot, rather like the Emperors of the last twenty years or so of the Western Roman Empire (c. AD 456-476), when the Emperor was no more than a figurehead for whoever was magister militum (“master of the soldiers” — i.e., head of the army) at the time, and could be done away with if he seemed to be exercising too much independent authority.
Pipes and Farahat are of course correct that Morsi’s obscurity prior to the presidential elections is important to consider here, but it is not the case that Tantawi “handpicked” Morsi for president.
Rather, when one considers his obscurity, and the fact that the Supreme Constitutional Court prior to the election had just blocked a law passed by the parliament that barred Mubarak-era officials from running for office, and had ordered the dissolution of the parliament on the grounds of the unconstitutional election of a third of its MPs, it is clear that the military was confident of a victory for Ahmed Shafik — a well-known official from the Mubarak era.
With the election of Morsi, however, the MB had essentially put the military on the defensive, and it was probably at that point hoping for some kind of “constitutional settlement” with Morsi in which it would direct matters of national security and foreign affairs, while the president would be given general autonomy in management of domestic matters, particularly the pressing economic crisis.
Even so, Morsi comes from an Islamist background that had been repressed for many years in Egypt. The natural consequence of this conditioning is a perceived need to consolidate one’s power — not only for the sake of pressing forward with one’s agenda but also shoring up one’s position in a zero-sum game of politics against supposed coup attempts.
Morsi was also well aware of the fate of Hosni Mubarak, who had been ousted by the military that rode the wave of popular discontent and mass protests at the start of 2011.
Accordingly, Morsi began his consolidation of power in August by dismissing Tantawi, putting in his place a virtual client, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who was head of military intelligence. In this move, Morsi had the support of the intelligence services and the Ministry of the Interior.
This first step by Morsi should be noted in comparison with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Islamic Dawa party had been banned and violently suppressed under Saddam, and the Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who prior to leading the AKP had been a member of the Islamist Welfare Party, which was the largest party in the coalition government under Necmettin Erbakan, before being forced out of power by the military in 1997 and subsequently banned.
Both Maliki and Erdogan have, like Morsi, initially focused on the military to consolidate power. In Maliki’s case, there has been the filling of the ranks of the military hierarchy with loyalists, and a decentralization of the command structure to prevent a single general from garnering sufficient support to oust him in a coup.
In Turkey, the Erdogan government has arrested and jailed numerous officers on charges of coup plots, such that the military has in effect been sidelined in Turkish politics.
Nonetheless, Morsi has now gone much further than Maliki and Erdogan in his assumption of what Agence France-Presse terms “sweeping powers.” Articles II and VI of Morsi’s new constitutional declaration most openly reflect dictatorial designs.
Article II makes all of Morsi’s “previous constitutional declarations, laws and decrees” — and future rulings until the constitution is approved and a new People’s Assembly elected — immune from being annulled by any body, while Article VI allows Morsi to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”
While he may have sidelined the military in August the most important context for Morsi’s latest autocratic move is the anti-Islamist opposition he still faces in the judiciary. Egypt is still in the process of establishing a new constitution with its Constituent Assembly, and the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly insisted on the maintenance of the Shura Council (upper parliament).
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