Behind Morsi's Momentous Decision
Ever since early April when he became an official candidate in the first post-revolution presidential election, Dr. Mohammad Morsi has been generally dismissed by most political observers as a weak and unimpressive politician. In fact, he was an accidental contender since he was the stand-in candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's (MB) first choice, senior leader Khairat Al-Shater. The MB fielded Morsi as its back-up candidate on the last day of filing because it predicted correctly that its original candidate would be disqualified by the pro-SCAF Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).
As Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took the reigns of power in February 2011, many observers believed that a tacit understanding existed between the powerful Egyptian military and the MB, the most organized political and social group in Egypt. For the next 18 months, this complicated and largely behind-the-scenes contentious relationship between these two powerful entities had its ups and downs.
When SCAF sided with millions of Egyptians in ousting Hosni Mubarak in early Feb. 2011, it was not to advance the objectives of the revolution but rather to sacrifice the president in order to save his regime. Throughout 2011, there were three centers of powers in the country: SCAF with its apparent military power, the MB with its enormous capacity for organization and mass mobilization, and the other revolutionary and grassroots groups (dominated by the youth but politically unorganized and inexperienced) taking to the streets throughout the year while paying a terrible price with dozens martyred, hundreds wounded, and thousands detained in military show trials.
When SCAF cracked down on the revolutionary groups, especially during the fall of 2011, the MB refrained from challenging the military as it was in the midst of its campaign for the parliamentary elections. By January 2012, it was clear that the Islamist groups led by the MB had won almost 75 percent of the seats in both parliamentary chambers. As the MB flexed its muscle and asked to be allowed to form the next government, SCAF refused and threatened the group with the dissolution of parliament. Shortly after, the MB reversed its public promise not to field a contender and actually filed for two presidential candidates.
Within days the military revealed its preferred candidate, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak regime. Consequently the tension of the two groups came to the fore as SCAF and the Egyptian deep state (where the remnants of the Mubarak regime still occupied strategic positions and were in control of the state bureaucracy) did everything in their power during the first round of the presidential elections in late May to split the opposition and support their candidate in order to get him to the second round.
Despite their apprehension over the MB's past broken promises, the revolutionary groups largely coalesced behind Morsi, the other winner of the first round, in the runoff elections, which he barely won with just over 51 percent of the vote. When it became clear on the last day of the runoff elections on June 17 that its candidate might lose, SCAF carried out a sweeping power grab as it dissolved the MB-dominated parliament, reclaimed all legislative powers to itself, issued a constitutional declaration that largely diminished the office of president, and assigned itself the right to appoint the constitution-writing committee if the current one was invalidated as expected by the SCC. In short, by the time Morsi took the oath of office on June 30, SCAF -- which essentially ruled the country for the past 16 months -- was effectively in control of the most important levers of power relegating the elected president to the position of a figurehead with diminished authority.
By the end of the first week of his presidency, Morsi issued a presidential proclamation, which re-instituted the parliament while calling for new parliamentary elections shortly after the constitution is approved by the people in a national referendum. Within 48 hours, the SCC swiftly overruled him and reversed his decision while affirming SCAF's constitutional declaration. Morsi reluctantly accepted its decision averting an impending confrontation, which confirmed in the minds of his detractors his weakness and political naivete.
Morsi's tactical retreat of this early challenge to SCAF's power emboldened the remnants of the Mubarak regime as a public campaign of belittling and undermining the newly elected Islamist president began in earnest. Barely a month into his presidency, his opponents, which included not only SCAF and Shafiq supporters, but also anti-Islamic liberal and secular groups, called for mass protests to oust him that were scheduled for August 24 under the theme "toppling the rule of the Brotherhood."
Meanwhile, Morsi had difficulties forming a government as he faced many obstacles since most political groups and prominent figures tried to impose unacceptable demands that restricted his presidential authority. By the end of July, he opted for a cabinet that was dominated by technocrats. Out of 35 cabinet positions, only 10 ministers represented pro-revolution figures, five of which were from his own MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). However, these cabinet ministers occupied some of the strategic positions in government that he hoped would bring about long-term structural reforms including the ministries of Housing, Labor, Information, Education, and Youth. But perhaps the most significant appointment was that of Judge Ahmad Makki as the new justice minister. Makki was well known as one of the fiercest critics of Mubarak and is a long-time champion of judicial independence. Upon assuming office he immediately took steps to institute new policies geared towards this goal.
But many other ministers were also carry-overs from previous cabinets including the relatively unknown minister of water resources, Dr. Hisham Qandil, 50, who was elevated to the position of prime minister. Although considered by many as a lightweight, the relatively young American-educated prime minister is well regarded for his efficiency and honesty. Morsi also retained SCAF's head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi as defense minister and the ministers of foreign affairs and finance, as well as the heads of intelligence and other senior military and security leaders. Most observers concluded that Tantawi, SCAF, and the security agencies had won this round and would be in effective control of the most important strategic positions in government.
For the first month of his presidency, Morsi treated the military institutions and SCAF leaders not only with extraordinary respect but even with reverence as he sought to earn their trust. Many assumed that he had accepted SCAF's constitutional proclamation that relegated him to a secondary role. Many foreign dignitaries visiting Egypt, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made a point in meeting not only with Morsi but also with Tantawi. While in the country even her brief statements were awkward as she counseled the president and SCAF's head to work together as though the country had two functioning heads of state.
But what everyone failed to see was that during this period Morsi was studying the power relationships within SCAF and the other security agencies. He was able during this brief period to identify those military and security leaders whose loyalty were to Tantawi and his chief-of-staff Gen. Sami Anan. In short, he was waiting for the right moment to make his move with minimal confrontation. Luckily for him that opportunity came soon enough.
On August 5, in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, dozens of unidentified militants with unclear motives and without any provocation attacked a checkpoint in the Sinai at the Egypt-Gaza border as the unsuspecting soldiers were breaking their fast, killing 16 guards and wounding seven. As a result, the nation was shocked and enraged. Many political analysts and commentators blamed the lack of security on the military that neglected its main duties in protecting and securing the borders while its leaders were fully engaged in politics and ruling the country despite electing a civilian president.