Whatever one fears as a result of the sudden and unexpected change in command in Egypt, it still could be considered a step in the right direction since the ruling military leaders have been sidelined and the country’s first elected president in six decades has landed on the top.
If nothing else, it may spell the elimination of military rule, a hope that is prevalent in many neighbouring Arab countries — evident in the demands heard, loud and clear, during the democracy-wielding Arab Spring.
At lightning speed, Mohammad Mursi, the first Egyptian to be elected president in 60 years on June 24, swept the seven top Egyptian military leaders out of office last weekend.
All were members of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), headed by Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Al Tantawi, a defence minister for 20 years during the regime of the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, and whose second term was renewed only last week. Also kicked out were the Army chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan, and the heads of the air force, air defence branches and the navy.
Moreover, Mursi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, nullified a constitutional declaration issued by Scaf just before he assumed the presidency that restricted his authority by empowering the military.
But last Sunday, the president countered by issuing his own declaration, giving himself broad legislative and executive power — a step that may be limited if the new constitution that is being currently drafted, hopefully in a hurry, will not favour his position by awarding him total power.
Surprisingly, there was no public objection from the military leaders, who were replaced by a younger generation of officers — Field Marshal Tantawi is in his late seventies and had served as de facto president since Mubarak’s downfall. This gave rise to speculation that the step may have been negotiated with the outgoing military leaders behind closed doors.
The new younger members of Scaf include General Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, a former head of military intelligence and now defence minister; Sidqi Subhi, a former army commander and now chief of staff; and Mohammad Al Assar, assistant to the defence minister, a position he held previously.
Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, writes that “Al Assar’s mention might be read as a signal of reassurance to the United States, as he has been responsible for handling military relations with Washington for years.” (US military aid to Egypt totals some $1.5 billion [Dh5.5 billion] annually.)
The Washington Post reported last Tuesday that the Obama administration had “exhaled a collective, if perhaps a temporary, sigh of relief” on learning that General Al Sissi was named defence minister, because he was well-known to US officials.”
One of those unnamed officials said the new Egyptian minister had previously “espoused cooperation with the United States and the need for peace with neighbours,” assumedly Israel. Nevertheless, the paper reported that “still, the level of US influence with the new Egyptian government remains uncertain and hard to predict.”
On the other hand, it seemed obvious that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defence Minister Leon P. Panetta, who visited Egyptian officials in Cairo recently, must have been surprised by the sudden turn of events in Egypt since both have never indicated that any serious changes in the Egyptian hierarchy were imminent. Yet, a senior military official maintained that “there isn’t a lot of concern at this point.”
A high point in the US reaction, a so-called “red flag,” has been Al Sissi’s acknowledgment that military officials had conducted “virginity tests” on female demonstrators during the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
For the record, General Al Sissi told human rights activists that the tests were carried out so that women would not claim to have been raped during interrogation but the Washington Post underlined that the Egyptian general had acknowledged that the tests were a mistake.
The days ahead may still be full of surprises, nationally, regionally and internationally. The main issue remains the new constitution, whose authors are still a guessing game. New hurdles are anticipated, including more security problems in the Sinai where 16 soldiers were recently killed by unidentified militants — an event that helped Mursi to step forward and dislodge the old guard.
It all depends on whether his key supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood, can usher in a period of tranquillity.
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com.